Choreographer Bella Lewitzky has built her career on bravery as much as she has on her talent to create dance. In 1966, when modern dance was in danger of disappearing from Los Angeles, not to mention being swallowed down and spit out in nearly unintelligible forms by earnest university departments, she founded her company in that city. And then when it became clear that every other modern choreographer was calling New York home and proclaiming it the center of the dance world, Lewitzky lengthened her company's roots in California. Her art as a choreographer, too, remained defiantly distinct from that of her colleagues. While they celebrated non-balletic body types on-stage and featured stocky, muscular dancers, Lewitzky set her work on performers who were long and lithe -- decidely balletic. And during one of the greatest arts crises of the late 20th century, that of conditional NEA funding, Lewitzky exercised her courage by drawing a line through the language in her own funding contract that forbade "obscene" art. And now, with the same kind of straightforward strength, the 80-year-old Lewitzky has announced the dissolution of her dance company, though not before it takes one farewell swing through America, a swing that brings them to Houston this Saturday near the midpoint of an eight-month-long farewell.
Lewitzky's interest in shape and shared balance is undoubtedly part of the reason she kept choreographing her work on balletic body types, though her firm aesthetic ideals figured in the equation as well. The shape of a lean leg under a stretchy piece of fabric or of unitard-clad dancers in an odd embrace has been part of Lewitzky's artistic plan -- in a familiar pose from her Impressions #1, a work inspired by the sculptures of Henry Moore, two female dancers hold each other in a geometric shape. The space between their long legs and narrow torsos is clean and long, created by the slender performers as much as by the pose itself. To say that Lewitzky's choreography celebrates the human form is too simplistic. What she often does instead is reinvent the way audiences look at stage space, as well as the way they experience a dancer's form.
That experience can be a subtle one, given that the raw steps of Lewitzky's choreography depart only subtly from those of neo-classical ballet. Her movement away from that form is delicate -- the playful flutter of hands dangling like leaves from upstretched arms, stag leaps moving into tiny staccato jumps to cover ground and leaning torsos that swing back and forth like a jackknife. Lewitzky's trademarks are her shapes; using dancers, sculpture and occasionally fabric, she creates arresting patterns and spatial configurations on-stage. Her sense of sculpture in space is her greatest contribution to modern dance; it distinguishes her work from that of any other choreographer and affords modern dance a formal, and uncommon, beauty.
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In its Houston concert, the Lewitzky Dance Company will perform three works: Impressions #2 (Vincent Van Gogh), Four Women in Time and Spaces Between. The selections -- ranging from the abstract angularity of Impressions #2 to the historical narrative meets myth nature of Four Women in Time -- are testimony to Lewitzky's breadth. Part of a series on artists and their art, Impressions #2 was inspired by the lonely, fiery quality of Van Gogh's paintings. Four Women in Time was also inspired by art: Judy Chicago's famous installation "The Dinner Party," a series of plates that depict famous women's vaginas. In Four Women, Lewitzky layered Chicago's feminist comment with four female characters, each of whom has her own movement of dance: a primordial goddess, a post-Christian spiritual figure named Sophia, the Roman philosopher Hypatia and, finally, the author Virginia Woolf.
Of the works scheduled for Houston, Four Women is probably the most rarely performed. Spaces Between, though, is considered one of Lewitzky's masterworks. As the title suggests, the dance, first staged in 1975, is an experiment with space, and the eight to ten dancers who perform it move about in both formal and abstract patterns. It is a disciplined work, and perhaps the one that best indicates Lewitzky's early training with Lester Horton, one of the first modern choreographers to see modern dance as a realm for choreographers, unlike ballet, which had been a realm for dancers.
Like any choreographer who has sustained a company for 30 years, Bella Lewitzky has a distinct sensibility about dance and dancers. What that means for an audience is that a Lewitzky Dance Company concert provides an evening marked with the choreographer's characteristic leans and balances, angular balletic lines and accomplished floor work. But rarer, and more fleeting in a time in which much contemporary dance offers only hard-bitten commentaries on social injustice, Lewitzky offers elegance.
Lewitzky Dance Company will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 11, at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-