“Bella” – Indeed [MOVIE REVIEW]
If you’ve never heard of Bella Lewitzky, here’s a chance to learn about one of the pioneers of modern dance in California. She definitely made a mark on the genre and Director Bridget Murnane wants to fill in that history.
In 1934, little more than a teenager, Bella happened on a modern dance class led by Lester Horton, a self taught iconoclast of the genre who was making a name for himself outside the acknowledged mecca of the East Coast, home of Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. Horton, self- taught, incorporated Native American culture and dance traditions into his choreography. Bella was an eager student and learned quickly, soon choreographing dances for the company as well. It was, in all likelihood, Horton’s free form movement and lack of rules that appealed to her at the beginning. She was an integral part of his frequently changing company. She eventually left, in 1950, frustrated by his commercial instincts. He supported the company by choreographing and having the company perform in low budget movies. Some of the best footage of Lewitzky dancing is as a native girl, a recurrent theme in the films for which Horton was employed, dancing on a drum in “White Savage.” Offensive? Perhaps. But it kept the company up and running. Although she later disavows his influence, she is reinventing history by doing so.
Director Bridget Murnane is unabashedly a Bella fan. She has populated her film with clips of Bella’s dancing from her early days with Horton to her famous choreographic collaboration with Rudi Gernreich. The archival footage is, unfortunately, very degraded but gives an idea of her progression from student to star dancer with Horton’s company to leader of her own troop. It was upon her that Horton developed his technique and the movements that were forever associated with him.
Horton’s integrated company was unusual for its time and Bella, a political liberal, was an advocate of his policies, something that may have contributed to her blacklisting after refusing to testify when subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. No longer part of Horton’s company and struggling to find sustainable work after her appearance in front of HUAC, Agnes DeMille threw her a lifeline, taking her on as an assistant choreographer for the film “Oklahoma.” I take issue with Murnane’s emphasis that DeMille did not accord credit to Lewitzky for her work. At that time, it was extraordinarily brave of DeMille to have offered paying work to a blacklisted individual when it could have seriously damaged her own reputation and opportunities. But at least Lewitzky was paid, could still dance and had a small company to perform her work with her.
HUAC notwithstanding. Bella was at a distinct disadvantage of being an outlier, founder of a California company that did not cater to East Coast dominance, and hence was ignored or disdained by that dance culture. Rather than succumb, she found a different path and began performing in Europe, eschewing New York entirely. After a rocky start, the Lewitzky company found an international milieu.
Bella was so much more than the sum of her parts. She was the founding director/dean of the dance department at Cal Arts but quit a few years later when the school would not commit to creating a dedicated performance space. She led a fundraising drive to build a dance space/gallery in downtown LA, one she abandoned when it became clear that the philanthropic board engaged to support dance was more focused on ballet than modern dance.
Her most famous collaboration, however, was with fashion Icon, Rudi Gernreich. Lewitzky met Gernreich when he joined Lester Horton’s company. As Bella remarked, he wasn’t a very good dancer and he wanted to be the best at whatever he did. Leaving dance, he became a fashion designer and within a few years he found international success. Dance, fabric and movement were integral to his designs and by 1965, with his creation of the “monokini” he was arguably the most famous fashion designer in the world. Early on, he experimented with costume design for Lester Horton, but it wasn’t until 1976 that his work became an integral part of Lewitzky’s choreography. Bella and Rudi collaboratively choreographed dances integrating the fabric and design as part of the movement and theme. They are some of her most popular pieces and some of his most important designs. Film clips show how breathtaking the relationship between his designs and her choreography were.
Bella never left her activist roots. In 1989, she took a noble stand against censorship in the NEA by declining a company-sustaining grant that would have required signing an anti-obscenity clause. Instead, she sued the NEA on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. She eventually won but lost most of her company who disbanded when she couldn’t pay them. Gathering what remained of her troop, she continued on for a few years, disbanding in 1997.
The film is about all things Lewitzky, it is, after all, called “Bella;” but a bit more distance from the subject might have given the documentary more depth. Relying almost entirely on film footage of Bella’s dances and her television interviews, there are no counterpoints given. Judging by her demeanor on air, no other opinions would have been countenanced. Still it must be mentioned that, at the very least, Horton is given short shrift. Although perhaps not intended, the impression is given that after Lewitzky left, taking many of the dancers with her, that Horton somehow faded away. Actually, Horton died a mere two years later and his company was briefly carried on by two of his most famous dancers, dancers whose fame eclipsed that of Lewitzky herself—Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey.
It is glorious to revel in the story of Bella Lewitzky and watch her progression as she aged beautifully both as a dancer and as a woman. Although seen entirely through her eyes, suffering no contrary opinions, it is wonderful to renew an acquaintance with one of the most important dancers of the 20th century.
Opening November 10 at the Laemmle Royal.