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IMPRESSIONS: "BELLA," Directed by Bridget Murnane, Has NYC Premiere at Dance On Camera Festival

IMPRESSIONS: "BELLA," Directed by Bridget Murnane, Has NYC Premiere at Dance On Camera Festival
Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram

By Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram
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Published on February 2, 2023

Featuring the Artistry and Determination of Dancer/Choreographer Bella Lewitzky

Archival still from Bella; courtesy of Lewitzky Dance Company records, Special Collections at USC Libraries, University of Southern California

BELLA directed by  Bridget Murnane  will have its NYC premiere on Saturday, February 11, 2023 at 1pm with the director in attendance.

Dance Films Association (DFA) and Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) present the 51st edition of the Dance on Camera Festival from February 10 - 13, 2023.  The four-day festival features 13 programs with a total of 30 new films selected from over 290 submissions representing 35 countries. Dance on Camera, the longest-running dance film festival in the world, takes place at Film at Lincoln Center.  For tickets, click here.

"I’m a dancer, not a singer.” That was the declaration dancer, choreographer Bella Lewitzky made in  when asked "if she named names," after she had been subpoenaed  by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1951. This maverick artist knew the committee existed “to instill fear,” and tremble, she would not!

Poster of Bella the movie, Bella Lewitzky as central figure balance on one foot as her upper body seems to be in motion

Attendants to the annual Dance on Camera Festival hosted by Film at Lincoln Center (February 10-13) can enjoy the intriguing story behind Lewitzky (1916-2004) in Bridget Murnane’s lucid documentary BELLA.

Murnane bookends her documentary with compelling footage of Lewitzky’s formidable technique in a mesmerizing example of the serpentine style of Lester Horton, her long-time collaborator. As fluid as it is, this sample shows her clear articulation of joints, something we might associate with hip-hop. Lewitzky’s voice drives the story of this Californian dancer whose influential father was an amateur painter and husband, an architect.

a photo of Bella as a young woman with long hair dancing outside

Archival still from Bella; image courtesy of Lewitzky Dance Company records, Special Collections at USC Libraries, University of Southern California

The standouts in the film are the archival footage:  THE BELOVED, a vivid duet co-created with Horton based on a true story of a man who beat his wife to death with a Bible because he suspected infidelity;  THE SPACES IN BETWEEN, with a memorable floating set created by Lewitzky’s husband; THE SONG OF THE WOMAN, composed by her music director, Larry Attaway, who we see and hear in the film, and performed beautifully by her daughter Nora.  Lewitzky's  collaborations with another ex-Horton dancer, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich are highlighted. The Gernreich costumes brought out a playful side of Lewitzky that makes one think of the inventive ways Alwin Nikolais and Pilobolus have used fabric.

Bella Lewitzky as an older woman in leotards and tights which are black playing under a plastic canopy with students

Archival still from Bella; image courtesy of Lewitzky Dance Company records, Special Collections at USC Libraries, University of Southern California

In her own words, Lewitzky was an individualistic dancer with a fierce ambition to be a perfect performer. Building a career in the depression, no one expected to earn anything.  Lewitzky, and many other artists, subsisted with work in films and nightclubs, although she was never proud of her film performances and loathed clubs. She took a break from performing to bring up her only daughter, Nora, and build a reputation as a dance teacher. At age 50, she started her own company, then rallied Los Angeles to fund The Dance Gallery. The company toured internationally. She made her mark again as an advocate by refusing a $72,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in protest over the requirement to sign an anti-obscenity vow.

bella in a black leo and tights sitting one leg crossed over the other with arms above her head, and her face tilted upward. she is teaching a dance class, leading in front of the mirror.

 Archival still from Bella; image courtesy of Lewitzky Dance Company records at Special Collections, USC Libraries, University of Southern California

One can draw a parallel in time and style on opposite coasts of two strong performers—Lewitzky on the west coast and Merce Cunningham on the east coast. Both started their experimental work upon  leaving the dramatic thrust of their mentors, respectively, Horton and Martha Graham. Yet, Lewitzky clearly stands apart in her range as a performer, creator, and protector-- a visionary and arts advocate.

Bella Lewitzky winning an artistic medal of merit shaking hands with President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton

Archival still from Bella: President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton with Bella Lewitzky being awarded a 1996 National Medal of Arts; 
image courtesy of Lewitzky Dance Company records, Special Collections, USC Libraries, University of Southern California

Along with learning an important slice of dance history in this film, one can be inspired by a brave woman who knew when to move on.  Horton was fascinating, but he kept casting her as victim, so she cut her ties after he created 15 ballets on her. An employer, Idyllwild School of the Arts, didn’t have a performing space, so she quit and built one in her house.

Fresh from winning a prize for best documentary in Dance Camera West, Murnane will attend the New York City  screening. The Dance on Camera Festival (DOCF) has shown many of Murnane's diverse works, including MIA, A DANCER’S JOURNEY , RECONSTRUCTING THE BELOVED, a 10’ short documentary on the above-mentioned duet,  and TOURNANTS, an amusing animated short made in 1987. As another bow to Murnane’s legacy with Dance Films Association, Dance on Camera Festival began its touring program over twenty years ago at Emerson College, with Murnane as host!


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