Bella, a new documentary that examines and celebrates the life of artist and activist Bella Lewitzky, is dazzling audiences across the world.
Hailed as a modern-dance pioneer, Lewitzky was a California-based dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She was designated one of America’s irreplaceable dance treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition and won the National Medal of Arts in 1996.
University of Oregon School of Music and Dance (SOMD) associate professor Walter Kennedy worked tirelessly for years on the award-winning film about Lewitzky’s life as the associate producer, alongside director and producer Bridget Murnane.
“Bridget and I felt we needed to cement Bella Lewitzky into dance history in a way that, up to that point, had not really been done,” Kennedy said.
The project is immensely personal to Kennedy. He studied as a principal dancer at the Lewitzky Dance Company (LDC) for nearly two decades. He first set his sights on the company after watching Lewitzky perform for the first time with LDC.
“She was an incredible dancer,” he recalled about the mesmerizing performance. “Her sheer physical capability was very intriguing. After the performance I thought, ‘I want what she's having!’”
He was invited to join the California-based company in 1978, and dove headfirst into training with Lewitzky, signing a four-year contract.
“She was a very formidable human being,” Kennedy remembered about his time in the company. “She could be tough. I learned a lot about brutal honesty and unvarnished truth from her.”
Over time, they developed a friendship offstage.
“She could be wickedly funny,” he said. “She’d always come off as so serious in rehearsals, but she did have a wonderful sense of humor. She was also loyal to people she trusted and cared about. She was unfailingly loyal.”
That humor is highlighted in the documentary when a reporter shared Lewitzky’s response to a question about whether she “named names” after being summoned to the House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify communists in the arts. Lewitzky responded, “I’m a dancer, not a singer.”
Her activism continued in 1990 when she sued the National Endowment for the Arts because it was requiring NEA grant recipients to sign an anti-pornography pledge. A federal judge later found the pledge unconstitutional. “I recognized that what I was looking at was pure, outright censorship,” Lewitzky says in an archival clip in the documentary.
“I think people should be encouraged to feel that they can speak up openly,” Kennedy said. “I think that, in some respects, Bella paved the way for a newer generation of artists to not only be involved in their art but also in politics.”
Lewitzky’s artistic and political endeavors, on display in the documentary, have enchanted audiences across the world. Last July, Kennedy attended the Madrid International Film Festival where it won two awards: Exceptional Showcase of the Arts and Best Cinematography for a Documentary.
“The audience in Madrid was blown away by it,” Walter recalled. “They said it was incredibly moving and important to see a citizen like Bella step forward and get involved in the political sphere.”
The documentary has taken home several other awards including Best Feature Documentary at Dance Camera West in Los Angeles, Festival Internacional Cine de America in Mexico, Film Fest International in Edinburgh, Montgomery International Film Festival in Delaware, and Worldwide Women’s Film Festival in Arizona.
Next, the film is heading to the Idyllwild International Film Festival on Mar. 10 and the Scotland International Film Festival in April. Kennedy hopes to reach a broader market and is currently conversing with industry professionals about the film’s implementation into dance curriculums around the world and beyond.