AN INVISIBLE BARRIER splits the dance world in two. And it's not the narrowing rift between ballet and modern dance, or the one between concert and social dance, but a divide built on geography: East Coast vs. West.
"Ito. Horton. Lewitzky: Masters of West Coast Dance," five days of lectures, discussions, performances and film screenings, may well go far toward bridging that gap. This summit of sorts, starting Wednesday and occurring at various venues around the area, will reach its climax June 11 with "Facing West," an ambitiously packed program at the Lincoln Theatre featuring groundbreaking work by a trio of left coast choreographers whose lives and fates were intertwined. Audiences will get a rare opportunity to see Lester Horton's "Sarong Paramaribo" from 1952, and Bella Lewitzky's "On the Brink of Time" (1969). Four brief solos by Michio Ito, all created between 1914 and 1928 -- and reconstructed by local choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess -- also will be featured.
Born in 1892, the Japanese-born Ito was trained in Europe in the movement techniques of Swiss educator and composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1929, Ito taught and choreographed large production numbers for Hollywood films, as well as live venues, including the Rose Bowl. (Sadly, Ito's American career ended in 1941 with the outbreak of World War II; he was sent to an internment camp in New Mexico and subsequently deported.)
Horton was an Ito protege. Later he, too, would choreograph amphitheater-size productions (of "Salome" and "The Rite of Spring") and craft dance sequences for Hollywood musicals. Simultaneously, he invented and honed to perfection a new style of modern dance.
Horton died young, in 1953 at age 47, but left an enormous legacy. Among his pupils was a high school student named Alvin Ailey, whom Horton trained in his rigorous dance technique, which developed dancers with rock-solid torsos and staunch yet fluid limbs. Bella Lewitzky, a dancer of precise form, became known as Horton's muse, helping him develop a codified series of exercises taught widely today.
But of Horton's many contributions to the field, the greatest was perhaps his insistence on a fully integrated school and company, says Horton biographer Larry Warren of Hyattsville, a dance professor emeritus at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Lester said, 'Come on in, roll up your sleeves and get to work,' " he says of Horton's Dance Theater, which Horton co-founded with Lewitzky in 1946. "Lester did everything: He taught dance, lighting design, costuming, scenic design. He taught the whole picture of what the theater entailed."
Given his immense contributions to the field, why does Horton remain an obscure figure? "How little recognition he receives is still a sore spot for many," says Diana Dinerman, the program director of "Masters of West Coast Dance." One possible explanation was offered in 1967, by New York dance critic Clive Barnes, who described Horton as a "genius on the wrong coast."
But while geography may still be destiny in dance, Horton's genius is indisputable, says Frank Eng, a Los Angeles drama critic in the 1940s who later managed Horton's company. He describes an electrifying performance of Horton's duet "The Beloved" from that period, featuring Lewitzky: "That single event changed not only my career . . . but my very life itself." For Eng, Horton's legacy is simple: "Art as community interface, as personal expression, as uplifting experience. Dance as approachable, functional benediction."
Words to live by, on any coast.
"ITO. HORTON. LEWITZKY: MASTERS OF WEST COAST DANCE" -- June 8-12. For information on dance classes, lectures at CityDance Center and other events, call 202-722-0770 or visit www.horton
summit.org. Performance: "Facing West: Celebrating Ito, Horton, Lewitzky," June 11 at 8. Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW, narrated by Washington Post critic emeritus Alan M. Kriegsman. Call 202-397-7328.