Bridget Murnane discusses her new documentary film on Bella Lewitzky
While the intersection of film and dance has been on the rise, most recently because of the global pandemic, Los Angeles-based Bridget Murnane has been working in those two arenas for years: She was not only a professional dancer in the 1980s, having performed with, among others, Gloria Newman, but she also earned a master’s degree in dance from UCLA in 1985, where her thesis was video as a choreographic tool.
Serendipitously, one of her professors had been the late Allegra Fuller Snyder (daughter of Buckminster Fuller, she was also an American dance ethnologist, choreographer and author), who had urged her to consider film. This, and Murnane’s frequent forays to the film department to help students with shoots, then led to her receiving a master’s of fine arts in 1990 from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, with her work having since been screened in more than thirty international festivals.
Murnane’s latest project, Bella, is a feature-length documentary about choreographer, dancer, arts advocate Bella Lewitzky, who formed Lewitzky Dance Company in 1966. Before disbanding the troupe in 1997, the charismatic dancer had also created more than 50 major concert works, with the troupe having toured to critical acclaim in 43 states and 20 countries.
Lewitzky, who died in 2004 at age 88, also received numerous awards during her lifetime, including six honorary doctorates, the first California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement (1989), and the 1996 National Medal of Arts by then-President Clinton. In 1970 she was also the founding dean of the dance program at California Institute of the Arts. Once described by the New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff as, “an extraordinary artist with an astounding mastery of technique,” Lewitzky comes breathtakingly alive through Murnane’s film.
Indeed, Bella is already racking up honors, including Best Documentary at the Festival Internacional Cine de América (Mexican premiere), Best Documentary Feature Director at the Shenzhen International Film Festival (China premiere) and the Award of Excellence at WRPN Women’s International Film Festival, with Morgan Sandler winning a best cinematography award at the Madrid International Film Festival for his contributions to Bella.
Murnane is decidedly on a roll, and while the film has been screened at more than a dozen American and international festivals to date, Bella, receives its Los Angeles premiere on January 19, 2023, kicking off the prestigious Dance Camera West Festival.
In addition, a special event takes place on January 21 at the L.A. Dance Project studio, where attendees will see film clips and a pair of Lewitzky reconstructions. Also of note: an exhibition featuring mostly never before seen photographs of Lewitzky taken by Viktor Von Probisic during the years 1937-1938.
I had the chance to speak by phone with Murnane, who also associate produced, Mia, A Dancer’s Journey, which chronicled the life of the celebrated ballerina Mia Slavenska, ultimately snagging a 2015 LA Emmy for Arts, Culture and History. Murnane, who recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam’s film market, where she was seeking national distribution for Bella, was keen on discussing a range of topics, from Lewitzky’s political ideals and her collaborators, to her impact on the dance landscape.
Congratulations on the success of Bella. Since you’ve been going to various film festivals throughout the States—including in San Francisco, where Bella had its West Coast Premiere, and in Utah, Ojai, CA and Orlando, FL—I’m wondering what the audience reaction has been.
The reaction has been extremely positive. The San Francisco Dance Film Festival [was] a dance audience, but the others were not. People just really loved Bella. They thought she was an important performer for them to know about, especially now. They saw her as a three-dimensional person and they really admired her.
The feedback has been extremely positive and you can tell once the film stops and the lights come up, people are clapping and they want to ask questions right away.
You were living in Boston in 1978 when the Lewitzky troupe came to town for a performance. That proved to be the beginning of a long friendship with both Bella and her husband Newell Taylor Reynolds, an architect and set designer she met while both were in Lester Horton’s company, Horton Dance Group, in the 1930s.
I met Bella through Susan Rose [then artistic director of Danceworks], who had been my teacher in Boston. I did workshops with Bella and became very friendly with her and her husband and everybody in the company. When I got a scholarship to UCLA, the only people I knew there were the Lewitzky people. Bella used to get me housesitting jobs!
I got friendlier with Bella and Newell in their later years and wanted to do a film in 2003, and started doing research in their archives. But I didn’t start actively working on the film until 2017. Bella had pretty much been erased from dance history and cultural history. Everybody’s forgotten about her and she’s such an important part of that. She worked tirelessly for the arts and for dance.
Why did you decide to have Bella tell her own story in the film, as opposed to having a surfeit of talking heads?
I felt using her voice was really important. I didn’t want to have the voice of God coming down and telling us what we were supposed to be thinking. I wanted Bella’s voice, because it was so important; all the things she was involved in; what she believed in. We didn’t have a lot of the material at one point – it was a huge search – but what we found we tried to use in the best possible way.
One of the longer interviews we found was from audio tapes she had done as an oral history for the UCLA Special Collections over a few years in the early 90s. We got permission to use that and we used news interviews. There was also something she had done in her living room on a cassette tape talking about Horton.
Okay, so let’s go back to Bella’s early years: She was born in 1916 in Llano del Rio, a utopian socialist colony in the Mohave Desert. How do you think that helped shape her life and work?
We say this in the film. Even though she doesn’t remember it much—she was two years old at the time—the philosophy of her family and how she was raised came from that. She believed in equality.
She believed in social justice. It had a great influence on what she did later in her life. They say that Horton [Dance Group] was the first inter-racial company, but I think it was Michio Itō, because in her oral history Bella says she saw Horton perform in Michio’s company in Redlands, probably in the late 20s. She also said that she did, “dangerous things, like try to get scholarships for black dancers in all-white ballet studios.”
Speaking of Horton, Bella enrolled in a class with Lester in 1934 and soon became his muse and star dancer in his troupe a few years later. While there, she performed, among many others, the lead role, “The Chosen One,” in the Horton-choreographed, “The Rite of Spring,” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1937, and in 1948 she performed in the dance drama, “The Beloved,” which she co-choreographed with Horton.
Whenever people talk about Horton, it’s always that his students were Alvin [Ailey], Bella, Carmen [de Lavallade]. Bella was his right hand, and a business partner in [Lester’s] Dance Theater. She was the director of the school. She taught Carmen, Alvin, Jimmy Truitte, they were all her students, so I wanted to get some of that history straightened out.
And so you did! After leaving the Horton troupe in 1950, Bella was also on Broadway in “Out of this World,” which ran for five months and was staged by Agnes de Mille.
When she left Horton, she told him she wouldn’t work for a year professionally in L.A., so that there would be no competition. She didn’t have any money, so she worked for Agnes. She was Janet Collins’ understudy. Agnes got fired halfway through and Hanya Holm came in and Bella was friends with both of them.
You really capture her life and spirit; in essence, Bella as maverick. In addition to showing a myriad of dance clips, including one from the 1942 film, Moonlight in Havana, you explore her relationships—with Rudi Gernreich, for example. He’s more well known for having invented the topless bathing suit—the monokini—in the 60s, but he and Bella had a working relationship and were also great friends.
That was really fascinating—their partnership, their collaboration. He danced for Horton, as well. Rudy was one of the founders of the Mattachine Society and he also developed unisex clothes. They hadn’t seen each other, until Rudy saw “Spaces Between”  and asked her to collaborate. Then there was “Inscape” . He had gotten a grant to make a new fabric, which was really spandex—aerobic clothing—and [principal dancer, musical director and composer-in-residence for the Lewitzky troupe] Larry Attaway, says that Rudy took her to places she would never have gone.
Bella contributed movement and he contributed the fabric. There were several pieces they collaborated on after “Inscape,” as well. They were very good friends and after Rudy died [in 1985], Bella would say, “Oh, I really miss Rudy.” It was an important collaboration.
In 1951 Bella was anonymously accused of being a member of the Communist Party, and was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which you cover in the film. You also shed light on her suing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA] in 1990, because she refused to agree to the newly legislated policy requiring grantees to pledge not to create obscenity, with a judge ruling in her favor in 1991 and eliminating the pledge.
The most fascinating thing about Bella is, I think, she was always willing to take that stand that others were not. She really never gave up her beliefs. That was important to me. She was such a committed person—committed deep down in her bones. Her body was even a demonstration of her commitment.
Then there’s Bella at HUAC saying, “I am a dancer, not a singer.”
Newell was the punster, but Bella was not. I asked her once, “Where did you come up with that?” “It just popped into my head.” Her commitment to issues of social justice was unwavering.
How do you think Bella’s work changed the dance landscape in Los Angeles?
As Lewis Segal [former dance critic of the L.A. Times], says in the film, “She’s the Mother Teresa of dance.” The thing about Bella, when she was in town, she and Newell went to everybody’s dance concerts. She supported everybody here. It didn’t matter if you were known or unknown, they went to absolutely everything.
They were also on tour quite a bit. They were the company that was that able to do that, and when they would come back, sometimes they’d teach classes, give master classes. They were role models for what could happen with a dance company, that you can go beyond L.A.
Bella spent 15 years planning and promoting the Dance Gallery, a $15.5-million dance theater/institute on Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. But because of funding shortages, she resigned from the project in 1992. Her dream was never realized and the location, sadly, is now a food court and parking garage.
I’ve read all the paperwork around that. She wanted it to be a world center for dance; she wanted choreographers to come in for a couple of months and not have to teach or do anything, but just choreograph. That was important to her. When people got those residencies, they were also doing other stuff [such as]—teaching. She felt people needed time to develop, time to sail, that people needed opportunities to sail.
She was on every commission, every panel, everything. If there was anything she could do to forward dance in any way, especially in L.A.—in California—I can’t think of anybody else I know who worked harder.
Everybody tells me that. When I see people at these different places—I saw [executive director, SF Dance Film Festival] Judy Flannery in San Francisco and [former executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow] Ella Baff, they both said that Bella had such an influence on them.
She had a huge effect on presenters, too. And she was also very supportive of women, especially if women were in those roles, which she wanted more of.
One thing that’s not in the movie is the  Olympic Arts Festival in L.A. I was here, and Bella and her [company] manager Darlene Neel were artistic directors for the dance component. She brought Pina [Bausch] to the States for the first time. I used to go every night and sneak in. That was a phenomenal experience and Bella wanted to set the tone of what she wanted L.A. to be. That was the kind of programming that the Dance Gallery would have done, and for L.A., ultimately, to become a global dance center.
It’s obvious that Bella—the person and now the film—mean a lot to you. Hopefully, the film will have an impact on others, as well, even for non-dance audiences.
Bella was my mentor, my teacher, my friend. She was also very funny—she had a great sense of humor. She had lived this extraordinary life and I didn’t think people were aware of parts of that life, and that had implications for generations after her.
In this country, when you say dance to people, their eyes just glaze over. Being in other countries, there’s much more acceptance of dance. We tried to make the film have a wider audience than the dance audience, but sometimes it can be very difficult. We did try to do that, on many levels, and that seems to have been successful. I also tried during the film to give people a dance education by showing small clips and that was another way to subversively educate the audience.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.