Los Angeles, California | Film Feature


Bridget Murnane

1 Campaigns | California, United States

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Described as " of the greatest American dancers of our age," (Walter Terry) Bella Lewitzky was a talented, strong, out-spoken artist, who dedicated her creative life to protect the rights of every American citizen.

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About The Project

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Mission Statement

Bella Lewitzky is a prime example of how a Californian woman, not born into wealth and privilege, challenged the power structures in her life, and in so doing created more opportunities for American artists today. Our producer/director, associate producer, writer and editor are all women!

The Story




This film will follow Bella Lewitzky’s early years in the Llano del Rio Utopian community in the Mojave Desert, through her move to Los Angeles in the 1930s, her work with Lester Horton, her prominence in both the cultural and entertainment societies of Los Angeles, to her blacklisting by HUAC and ultimate career as a recognized international choreographer, educator and arts advocate/spokesperson. 



Based in Los Angeles in the 1930’s and 40’s, Lewitzky was the primary developer of the Horton dance technique.  Her students included Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade, who went on to form the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City.  The Horton technique is taught world-wide, and unlike modern techniques developed in the eastern United States, is based on Native American dance.  In Lewitzky, Horton found the body upon which he would build his technique, a uniquely west coast modern dance style, historically under-represented in the lexicon of dance and cultural history. Social injustice, anti-fascism, and American and Mexican history were some of the themes explored in Horton’s dances and embodied by dancers who committed to these themes in their daily lives. 


Being a modern dancer in Los Angeles at this time did not provide a sustainable income.  To support herself and her family, Lewitzky worked under the Federal Theatre Project in works choreographed by Horton and others.  She also assisted Horton on film projects as well as serving as assistant to Hanya Holm and Agnes DeMille. The support of the Federal Theatre Project was essential to the well-being and development of many artists during the “New Deal.”  The effect of the program was enormous, as it kept hundreds of artists employed.



In Los Angeles, many moved into the “Hollywood” system, as did Bella, often performing as a background dancer, featured dancer or dance assistant.  Although the history of the “Hollywood Entertainment Industry” has been well documented, those artists in the background who moved between mainstream entertainment and art have not been addressed. These films, often full of racial, class, and sexist stereotypes, featured Lewitzky as the “exotic” one, e.g., credited as a “specialty dancer” in films such as White Savage where she danced on a large drum as a “native.”  Although the veneer of these films was white, privileged and male, the reality of who did the below the line work was quite different, and often this work was uncredited. There were many historical intersections between the mainstream and artistic communities in Los Angeles at this time, and I would like to examine how these intersections affected Lewitzky, her community, and the development of dance art in Los Angeles. 



In 1950 Lewitzky and Horton parted ways.  Lewitzky felt a need to develop her own choreography and opened a small studio, Dance Associates, on the other side of Hollywood.  She recalls, “… one day a gentleman with a hat on… handed me a subpoena.”  She was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee where she pleaded the Fifth Amendment.  Her life took a drastic turn following these events.  While most Americans are familiar with HUAC and the famous producers, directors, writers and “The Hollywood Ten,” who were called before it, many are unaware of those like Lewitzky who were not famous and had no power base within the industry.  Some have inferred that she was named due to her support of the integration of dance/ballet schools. Although she was called before the committee only once, every time the committee came back to Los Angeles for hearings, her case and picture were prominently featured in the media.  She could not “safely” work in films, colleagues would cross the street to avoid her, she received threatening phone calls, and her friends had rocks thrown through their windows. The only person who would hire her at this time was Agnes DeMille, who brought Lewitzky on as her assistant on the movie “Oklahoma,” with the stipulation that Lewitzky would not receive credit.  After this, Lewitzky did not work in the "industry" again.  She later stated, “It really is frightening when you can realize that your safety and right to life can be removed from you and that your enemy is never seen, is hidden, and that your accusers cannot be confronted because you don’t know who they are.”



In 1966 Lewitzky founded the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. Unlike her earlier work, which was dramatic and socially conscious, her new choreography emphasized pure movement, and her dancers became noted for their strength, line, elevation, and agility—a tribute to her gifts as a teacher.  She also became the founding Dean of the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts, where she developed a multicultural/inter-arts approach to teaching modern dance.  She worked tirelessly to promote dance in California and sat on many national panels and boards.  In 1984 she accepted an offer from the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival to produce its dance component, bringing in such international companies as Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theatre, and Japan’s Sanki Juku, for the first time to the United States.  In addition, she presented local Hispanic, Asian and African American groups who received national and international exposure, putting Los Angeles and California on the cultural dance map for the first time.



In 1990 Lewitzky refused to sign an anti-obscenity clause on the acceptance form of a $72,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. This was a clear intersection of art and politics and Lewitzky stated, “Please watch out. This is a pattern with which I am very familiar and it has nothing to do with pornography. Pornography is simply the demagogic weapon that permitted mind rule and censorship to move forward.” Unable to meet their payroll, her company disbanded as she joined with People for the American Way to sue NEA director John Frohnmayer. Lewitzky prevailed in this landmark case and was finally awarded the grant.  The NEA was instructed to “take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”



This process took time away from Lewitzky’s choreography and fund raising.  After a re-organization she decided to close her company with a final international tour and gala.  On May 17, 1997 at the Luckman Theatre at Cal State LA, the campus where her company gave its first performance, she said good-bye to her audience and stated, “The arts are under threat more than ever before.  What legacy I have left here will die unless you become responsible for keeping it alive.”  This case and the actions of the NEA changed the funding structure for the arts in the United States.  Individual grants are no longer given to artists, but must be supported by institutions.  Could Lewitzky have succeeded without the support of the Federal Theatre Project, or subsequent support from the NEA and NEH?  How are California artists subsidizing their work today and what direct impact did Lewitzky’s actions have on our present artistic environment?



Bella Lewitzky died on July 16, 2004.  At age 88, her physical health had deteriorated but her vital spirit continued to inspire those around her.  Designated one of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition and awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, Lewitzky’s life demonstrates how a “uniquely Californian” artist with vision and tenacity can change the lives and landscapes of her fellow citizens for the better.



"Freedom is not a given, you have to fight for it." Bella Lewitzky


Bella, Citizen Artist is a fiscally sponsored project of the International Documentary Association (IDA), 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization. Contributions in support of Bella, Citizen Artist are payable to IDA and are tax deductible as allowed by law.


Use the WishList to Pledge cash and Loan items - or - Make a pledge by selecting an Incentive directly.

Cash Pledge

Costs $0

Company Member Interviews

Costs $3,000

We would like to interview every member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company.

Oral History Digitization

Costs $720

UCLA has archived an Oral History made by Bella, 1990-91. We need this digitized!

Photo/Document Scanning

Costs $1,250

Over 1,000 photos/slides and 500 documents need to be scanned.

Film Digitization

Costs $3,500

3000 feet of 8mm, S8mm and 16mm needs to be digitized.

External Hard Drives

Costs $1,575

We need to buy 3 G-Technology G-DRIVES with Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C 10TB.

Editorial Project Organization

Costs $2,000

We need to organize our project in Avid to prep for editing.

Horton Collection Research

Costs $1,500

The producer/director needs to travel to Washington D.C. to conduct research in the Horton Archives.

Interview Transcriptions

Costs $1,700

We need to transcribe all interviews to develop the script.


Costs $2,000

Our writer needs to do extensive research to prep the film outline and develop the script.


Costs $2,500

We need a 7 minute trailer developed for outreach and grant applications.

iPad Pro

Costs $799

We need an iPad Pro to store photos and videos, to show interviewees during production

First Assembly/Rough Cut

Costs $3,500

We need to edit a rough cut of all materials so we can develop a timeline and budget for completion.

About This Team

Bridget Murnane, Producer/Director

Producer/director/educator Bridget Murnane is known for her creative media treatments of dance, as well as experimental and narrative projects. Her films have screened in over thirty international festivals and received numerous awards including two CINE Eagles. Her first feature, "Odile and Yvette at the Edge of The World," premiered at the prestigious Edinburgh Film Festival and received special recognition from the Film Advisory Board and the Brussels Diamond Film Festival. The PBS series, New Television and The Territory, have presented her work, as well as the cable channel, Classic Arts Showcase. Bridget was the Associate Producer of "Mia, a Dancer's Journey," broadcast on PBS and winner of the 2015 Los Angeles Emmy Award for Arts, Culture and History.  Bridget is a Professor of Television, Film and Media Studies at California State University Los Angeles where she teaches production and directs the TVF/TVFM Student Media Internship Program.  She is currently in production on “Bella, Citizen Artist,” a documentary about her former teacher and mentor, Bella Lewitzky.


Jordana Toback, Associate Producer

Jordana is a choreographer, director and dancer whose work and collaborations span genre: from classicist whimsy, to feminist funk, to sensual post modernism.  A California native, Toback began her choreographic tutelage as a teenager under the guidance of modern dance legend, Bella Lewitzky. After graduating from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA, she joined the Mark Morris Dance Group, touring internationally with the visionary enfant terrible from Brooklyn, to Brussels, to East Asia. Toback went on to establish her own choreographic vision via a landmark collaboration with electronica sensation Fischerspooner.  Since then, she’s choreographed & created video content for music starts like Ceelo Green as well as many indie rock bands.  She’s been commissioned to choreograph productions for Lincoln Center, Harvard’s A.R.T, NYU, Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor’s Island, and St. Anne’s Warehouse, many of which received Bessies, Obies, you name it. She’s worked as a specialty movement consultant with influential directors like Michel Gondry, Leslie Dektor and Wayne Wang, photographers Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller and Todd Eberle, and has advised as a movement coach serving creatives and performers from all walks, specifically for Condé Nast Fitness and Fashion shoots working with models, movement and couture. 


Walter Kennedy, Associate Producer

Walter was a principal dancer with the internationally acclaimed Lewitzky Dance Company for nearly twenty years. He was trained by Bella Lewitzky to be one of her master teachers of technique, improvisation, and composition, and was also appointed the company's rehearsal director from 1990 until the company's farewell performance in 1997. He has also worked with such diverse choreographers during his dancing career as Lar Lubovitch, Laura Dean, Joe Goode and Anna Sokolow. His choreography has been honored at several American College Dance Festivals, and at such venues as Highways Performance Space and the Dance Kaleidoscope Festival in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1998 he was invited as guest choreographer to The Yard, an artist's colony on Martha's Vineyard, and also at the University of Arizona in the same year. Kennedy holds an MFA from University of Illinois where he was also Visiting Assistant Professor, and a BFA from California State University, Long Beach, where he was also part- time faculty.

Pat Verducci, Writer, W.G.A.

Pat has written screenplays for Touchstone Pictures, Witt-Thomas Productions, and Disney’s animation division. She has also worked as a story consultant for Disney/Pixar as part of their “Story Trust.” She wrote and directed the feature film True Crime, starring Alicia Silverstone, and her writing credits also include documentary shorts for HBO and Showtime. She co-produced Somewhere Between, a feature documentary about four teenaged girls transracially adopted from China, and served as a story consultant on the Tinkerbell franchise for Disney. She is currently the script editor on several feature film projects for Film Victoria and Screen Australia.  Pat serves as a mentor at the Meryl Streep funded IRIS/New York Women in Film and Television’s WRITER’S LAB FOR WOMEN, and CINESTORY.  She’s a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and teaches in the MFA Screenwriting program at UCLA.

Morgan Sandler, Cinematographer

Before joining La Verve University in 2016, Morgan was a professor at Cal State Los Angeles where he helped to design the digital cinematography program.  Morgan is also the former head of the Cinematography department at the Los Angeles Film School.  In addition to his 10 years of teaching experience, Morgan is also an accomplished cinematographer and director who has spent nearly 17 years shooting feature films, television shows, commercials and music videos. His list of clients includes Disney, MTV, ABC, Court TV and Funny or Die.  Morgan is also a RED Camera certified instructor as well as an avid photographer.  He is the author of “Visual Storytelling: How to Speak to the Audience Without Saying a Word.”

Pam Wise, Editor, A.C.E.

Pam Wise edited the award winning films "Transamerica," "Dark Matter," "Secretary," and "Dancemaker."  She began her career in the 1970s editing cinema verite documentaries with Ricky Leacock, Charlotte Zwerin, and the Maysles brothers.  Ms. Wise honed her story-telling skills and music and dance editing on such films as "Horowitz Plays Mozart," a Maysles film which premiered at the NY Film Festival, "Carnegie Hall Gets Plastered," (co-director), "A Tribute to Hank Williams,"  "John Lennon Live in NY," and "Trisha Brown's Accumulation with Water Motor."  Ms. Wise edited music videos by Malcolm McLaren, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Yoko Ono. 

Through the years she has edited several cinema verite documentaries and narrative films. Ms. Wise is a 1998 A.C.E. Eddie Award Winner for Best Edited Documentary, "Dancemaker." She is a member the Motion Picture Editors Guild, American Cinema Editors, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Celia L. Mercer, Design Director

Celia L. Mercer studied art at San Francisco State University (BA 1982) and received her MFA in film from UCLA in 1990. She has worked professionally in animated features, television graphics, and art direction/interface design for the interactive industry. Mercer’s award-winning animated films have screened internationally.  Returning to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television as the second Senate Faculty member in Animation in 1996, Professor Mercer became Area Head of the UCLA Animation Workshop in 2007.  In her work, the artist and filmmaker uses juxtaposition of found image, letters, words, pattern and texture to present the familiar – the everyday – in unexpected ways.  Working in both film and painting, primarily with the medium of encaustic paint combined with collage, Mercer creates complex multi-layered effects, underscoring the feeling of mystery and depth in some work; encasing and memorializing in others.

Alex Bushe,Trailer Editor, Assistant Editor

Alex Bushe is a Los Angeles-based editor with experience in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. He has worked on over 20 films, including 6 features with renowned director Werner Herzog. Other notable works include Lynne Ramsay’s "You Were Never Really Here," Andrea Arnold’s "American Honey", and Nick Broomfield’s "Tales of the Grim Sleeper." He recently led two editing workshops for the Doha Film Institute in Qatar and in 2014 participated in the Sundance Institute's Documentary Edit and Story Labs. He is currently editing "Guangzhou Love Story", an observational PBS documentary about an African-Chinese family navigating China’s xenophobic society, and also directing "Nomansland", a documentary about an uninhabited island in New England with a mysterious past.


The International Documentary Association/Toni Bell, Fiscal Sponsor

The International Documentary Association (IDA) is dedicated to building and serving the needs of a thriving documentary culture.  Through its programs, the IDA provides resources, creates community, and defends rights and freedoms for documentary artists, activists, and journalists.




Current Team