Noted choreographer Bella Lewitzky filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles yesterday challenging the National Endowment for the Arts' requirement that her dance company pledge that it won't use federal funds to create "obscene" art.
The dance company, which has received endowment support since 1972, was approved for a $72,000 grant but rejected the money because of the required pledge. A $15,000 advance has been placed in an escrow account, according to dance company attorney Michael Hudson.
Endowment officials declined to comment. But when a similar suit was filed by the New School for Social Research in May, the endowment said the complaint was flawed "on procedural grounds" and that "the plaintiff's time and energy would be better invested in efforts to communicate to Congress the difficulties this law is causing them." The New School suit is pending in federal court in New York.
The Los Angeles-based dance company is one of a growing number of institutions and individuals who have rejected NEA money in protest of the pledge. Others include the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Paris Review. Dance company spokesman Allen Wallace said the NEA grant, which represents 8.5 percent of the troupe's annual budget, was intended to cover payroll and rehearsal costs.
"A little bit has been made up by donors and friends of the company, about $20,000," he said. "But that's not a long-term answer because people respond to this issue when it's hot ... but what do you do six months from now?"
Wallace said the company's work includes "nothing you would even remotely consider obscene unless you had a twisted mind." The 12-member ensemble, which will appear this summer at the Biennale de la Dance in Lyon, France, is known for its craftsmanship and discipline in traditional modern dance.
Like the New School suit, the Lewitzky case asks the court to rule that an obscenity restriction in the endowment's 1990 appropriation is unconstitutional, precluding the NEA from enforcing it.
The restriction forbids use of NEA funds for art that the endowment would consider "obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
The suit says the restriction is too vague and has a chilling effect on the artist. It also says the required pledge "improperly reposes in the NEA, rather than in a judicial officer, the authority to determine what may be considered obscene" and permits the determination of obscenity to be made without due process.
The dance company is represented by People for the American Way and partners from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which is contributing its legal services.