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Last modified: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

IU Contemporary Dance Program receives NEA grant to restage Bella Lewitzky's 'Suite Satie'

May 17, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University's Contemporary Dance Program received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for the program's most ambitious project yet, reconstructing a modern dance piece by influential choreographer Bella Lewitzky and documenting the ephemeral masterpiece for future study and enjoyment.

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The IU Contemporary Dance Program received NEA funding in 2009 to restage Martha Graham's 'Panorama,' performed in January, 2010

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The challenge comes both in documenting the many facets and nuances of dance, a performance artform, and the difficulty of the actual dance itself, Suite Satie.

"This will be very challenging for the dancers," said Elizabeth Shea, coordinator of the Contemporary Dance Program in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "They will really have to push themselves toward complete professionalism. It will require a lot of strength and focus. The dancers in this piece will have to get their bodies into elite athletic condition."

Lewitzky, who died in 2004, was a notable dancer and an award-winning and prolific choreographer. The Bella Lewitzky Dance Company was based in Los Angeles but performed throughout the U.S. and abroad from 1966 to 1997. Shea said she chose to restage and document Suite Satie in part because Lewitzky created it during the "apex" of her career as a choreographer and because it is considered one of her seminal works. It also has not been performed since her death.

"She's a predominant force in modern dance history and development," Shea said. "All of us who are familiar with Bella's technique and the beauty and breadth of her art really feel that her works are not being reconstructed enough."

Art is preserved in many ways, some more effective than others. Paintings, sculptures and literature, for example, essentially speak for themselves. The performing arts are trickier because of the temporal element, and the two-dimensionality of video recordings. While music can be recorded and written, dance uses a form of "language" called Labanotation, which is extremely complicated as it tries to match movement with abstract symbols representing such things as direction of movement, spatial relationships, which body parts are moving and how long the movement takes.

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IU's Colleen Welch performs Lewitzky's 'Trio for Saki' in January, 2010

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The reconstruction and documentation of Suite Satie will be a true team effort, involving the School of HPER's contemporary dance majors, Shea as project director and dance historian Selene Carter; three visiting artists who had worked closely with Lewitzky; and the Jacobs School of Music, whose performers will accompany the piece when it is performed at the annual contemporary dance concert in January.

The visiting artists include Laura Poole, who danced with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company from 1980-1985 and more recently was a visiting lecturer in the Contemporary Dance Program. Poole will be in residence for three weeks to set the piece on IU's contemporary dance majors.

Nora Daniel, Lewitzky's daughter and also a member of her dance company for five years, will spend a week in residence at IU teaching and coaching. Larry Attaway, director of the Jordan College Academy of Dance at Butler University, was composer-in-residence and associate director for Lewitzky and the dance company from 1973 to 1997. He will work with the dancers musically and also deliver a lecture at the Jacobs School of Music.

Shea said other educational and outreach components are planned, including a free matinee performance of Suite Satie, lectures, and a performance in Indianapolis. The visiting artists also will work closely with Carter as she documents the dance through video, interviews and her own observations. Her final product will be submitted to academic and professional organizations for publication.

Shea said the Lewitzky technique is "wonderful for pre-professional students of dance," because it emphasizes line, flow, and articulation of the body, which translate well to other techniques and approaches. Shea said she really enjoys having Lewitzky artists work with her dancers because of their engaging teaching style, something they learned from Lewitzky.

"Her company really devoted itself to bringing dance to children and the community," Shea said. "The dancers who worked with her had a passion and love for educating, that works especially well with college students."

Last year the Contemporary Dance Program received NEA funding through Dance/USA to restage dance great Martha Graham's Panorama, which was performed at the annual contemporary dance concert earlier this year. This year's $15,000 grant was awarded directly from the NEA.

Shea can be reached at 812-855-7020 or