Missing Bella

At age 81, Los Angeles’ modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky closed down her dance company. That was 22 years ago and her works have been revived only sporadically since then. A good portion of her repertory is in danger of being gone for good, which would be a terrible outcome.

A few people, happily, have picked up the baton to carry it forward, including John Pennington, former Lewitzky dancer and leader of his own troupe, Diana MacNeal, who was in Lewitzky’s troupe with Pennington, and Judith FLEX Helle, artistic director of Luminario Ballet, which performs a few Lewitzky pieces. A Luminario performance Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center reminded us what we’ve been missing.

The event was tied to an outstanding exhibition on view at the Skirball, “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich.” (It runs through Sept. 1 and shouldn’t be missed.) Gernreich, a groundbreaking fashion designer, had first been a dancer (not a very good one, according to his own critical assessment). He and Lewitzky met at the studio of Lester Horton, another Los Angeles dance giant, and Gernreich later designed costumes for five of Lewitzky’s pieces.

Stuck on each other: Audrey Hewkes (left) and Daniel Wagner. All photos by Frances Chee

One of those was “Inscape,” a 1976 abstraction with a score by longtime collaborator, Larry Attaway. Lewitzky liked to ask “What if…,” and make a dance that answered the question. I can’t say for sure but it appears the question for “Inscape,” was “What if the dancers were attached to one another by their costumes?” At least that’s the question I perceived from the three duets presented Sunday.

Gernreich provided the means with a stretchy, three-legged outfit called a duotard. The dancers shared the middle leg opening, binding them together. MacNeil reproduced copies of the original costumes, one of which is in the Skirball exhibit. Lewitzky made the first duet a moving sculpture, which dancers Andie Bartol and Kelly Vittetoe turned into an elegant promenade. In the second duet, Audrey Hewkes and Daniel Wagner reminded me of mechanical dolls or Commedia dell’Arte characters, thanks to the red dots each had affixed to a single cheek and to a gently bumbling, comedic style. In the final section, stretchy hoods connected AJ Abrams to Louis Williams, inspiring a stylized battle, like rams butting heads for dominance.

AJ Abrams (top) and Louis Williams do battle.

The short program closed with “Turf,” Lewitzky’s 1993 male quartet with costumes by MacNeil. Attaway’s percussive score was a perfect match for this macho, staccato work. “Turf” was Lewitzky’s response to the violent uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict. Four men, each standing on and guarding his own wooden pedestal, eventually come to blows that feel never-ending and cyclical.

There was something faintly naïve about “Turf.” Its viewpoint is equally harsh of each man, failing to factor in the injustices of systemic racism. Lewitzky fought against injustice her entire life, though, and so I don’t think was necessarily her point. She seems to take a more mythic or heroic take on human brutality, and in that sense, the work is timeless, not unlike Kurt Jooss’ anti-war dance “The Green Table.”

They’re finished, for now. From the top: Abrams, Cory Goei, Williams, David Kim

It requires both brute force and delicate, rigorous timing. The men freeze in place, then scale the wooden boxes, jump to the floor and rush into intricate balances. Abrams, Williams, David Tai Kim and Cory Goei managed it all with thrilling spontaneity and exactitude, ending in a totem pole that was like a warning about humanity’s continuous cycle of violence.

How great would it be if every Los Angeles dance company took one Lewitzky dance into their repertory to perfect and keep alive. Something to consider.

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