This Day in Jewish History

1916: A Dancer Who Defied the Red-baiters Is Born

Bella Lewitzky also beat an obscenity ban, for the principle of the thing, as she didn't stage anything obscene, she stressed.

January 13, 1916, is the birthdate of the modern-dance performer, choreographer and teacher Bella Lewitzky, who is remembered not only for the art she created but also for the courage with which she defied the Communist-baiting U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities.

She would also famously defy the National Endowment for the Arts when it attempted to attach strings to a grant it offered her dance company.

Bella Lewitzky spent her early years at Llano del Rio, a socialist commune in the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles, with her parents. Joseph Lewitzky and the former Nina Ossman were both Jewish immigrants from czarist Russia. The family later moved up the coast to San Bernardino, where the parents ran a chicken farm. When that failed, they returned to Los Angeles. Lewitzky began studying with Lester Horton, perhaps the city’s most highly regarded dancer at the time, at the Norma Gould Studio.

By 1934, Lewitzky had joined Horton’s dance company, becoming its lead dancer. Other performers she worked with included Rudi Gernreich, later a famed fashion and stage designer, and Newell Reynolds, who became her husband and an architect.

Dancing against anti-Semitism

In 1946, Lewitzky, Horton, Reynolds and William Bowne founded the Dance Theater of Los Angeles, a school and company that was daring both in being multiracial and in the themes it took on, such as anti-Semitism, adultery and religious extremism.

In 1951, an anonymous tip-off alleging her membership in the Communist Party led to Lewitzky’s being subpoenaed by HUAC when it held hearings in Los Angeles. Asked to testify about communist activism in the arts community, she refused to name names, declaring, “I am a dancer, not a singer.” This led her being briefly blacklisted from movie work, which had provided a lucrative addition to her income.

Lewitzky taught dance at several academic institutions, including the California Institute for the Arts. From 1966 to 1997 she oversaw what was probably her greatest accomplishment, the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, for which she choreographed more than 50 works over the years. She was unusual in her insistence on remaining in Los Angeles, at a time when New York was clearly the center of American dance. Lewitzky did not make its New York debut until 1971, dancing with her company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

No obscenity, please

Lewitzky was known for her emotionally evocative choreography and her own “astounding mastery of technique,” in the words of the New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff, but she was also revered for her concern for the welfare of her company’s dancers. She paid her dancers a year-round salary even though there were months when they did not perform, and she saw to it that they had health insurance.

In 1990, nearly four decades after talking back to the House red-baiters, Lewitzky crossed out an anti-obscenity clause in the grant contract for funds the company was awarded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. Recipients had to promise not to create any work that might be seen as “obscene.” Lewitzky argued that while she had never staged anything that could be considered obscene, it was unconstitutional to try to restrict artists’ freedom of expression. A federal court agreed, striking down the obscenity clause.

In 1997, Lewitzky, by then over 80, decided to close her dance company after she became convinced that its financial future could not be secured. She gave three of her former dancers, including her daughter, Nora Reynolds Daniel, the right to perform her works. Two years later, her right leg was partially amputated due to arterial disease.

Bella Lewitzky died on July 16, 2004, of complications after a stroke, in Pasadena, California.