- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2016

Oct. 6, 1971: The D.C. dance world discarded racial tensions at the door of the Kennedy Center to witness the premiere of New York’s predominantly black Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The mostly white, affluent crowd flocked back to see the show, night after night.

Douglas Wheeler, who presented Alvin Ailey to the District, attributes the week’s success to one woman: dance critic Jean Battey Lewis.

“Her review the next day said, ‘Run, don’t walk, to see this company,’” said Mr. Wheeler, former president of The Washington Performing Arts Society. “No one had ever seen anything like it.”

Mrs. Lewis — dancer, teacher and award-winning dance critic — died Thursday, May 12, leaving a storied legacy in the D.C. arts community. The 91-year-old scribe drew much respect from her readers and colleagues in the dance world for her quiet assurance, keen observations and warm open-mindedness.

“She was the kind of critic who could be critical without being mean,” Mr. Wheeler recalled. “She was always encouraging, always supportive of the art form. She was someone you could go to with an idea.”

Mr. Wheeler would often walk into The Washington Post newsroom, where Mrs. Lewis worked as the paper’s first dance critic from 1958 to 1973, sit down at her desk and pitch her ideas about how to enhance the D.C. art scene with new choreographers and companies from New York and around the world.

At a time when contemporary dance was emerging on the world’s stage, Mrs. Lewis had front row seats — and a sharp pencil.

“She wrote about [modern dancers] from the very beginning when they came here,” said Sali Ann Kriegsman, former dance director for the National Endowment for the Arts and wife of Mrs. Lewis‘ deceased colleague at The Post, Alan Kriegsman. “She was an advocate without being a cheerleader.”

Though Mrs. Lewis welcomed newcomers to the D.C. dance scene, she critiqued them with the same high standards that she regarded longtime pillars in the field, with whom she was closely familiar. Mrs. Lewis wrote about artists from the co-founder of the New York City Ballet (also her friend and favorite choreographer) George Balanchine to Russia’s premier ballet company, the Kirov.

Mrs. Lewis gained a reputation among her readers for her informative reviews. Those who followed her critiques of modern dance knew she was an ardent supporter of Paul Taylor.

“Her interest in his work was very well-founded,” said Mrs. Kriegsman. “It was not just she fell in love with a piece that she saw of his. She knew his whole body of work. So her interest in his work and her viewpoint about it were very well-informed and very well-respected because people knew that they were grounded.”

Each of Mrs. Lewis‘ hundreds of reviews combined a wealth of knowledge about the performers, dance techniques and history — all shared with the enchanting, musical voice of an experienced arts journalist.

“It’s the wellspring of classical dance, with an outpouring of some of ballet’s greatest hits,” reads a 2006 review of “Sleeping Beauty” that Mrs. Lewis wrote for The Washington Times, where she worked from 1989 to 2008. “There is a vision scene in an imaginary garden, the regal pomp of scenes at court, and a final act that includes the brilliant Bluebird Pas de Deux, culminating in the lovers’ radiant duet. These are iconic moments all packed into one grand, sumptuous ballet.”

Longtime D.C. dance critic George Jackson, a friend of Mrs. Lewis‘, recalled seeing her at the theater concentrating on the movements onstage.

“She was very much a lady,” Mr. Jackson said. “An old-fashioned lady in some ways, her manners, the way she dressed.”

When Mr. Jackson began writing for The Post and The Washington Star in 1972, he said Mrs. Lewis and he “became colleagues, friends and, of course, [also] rivals.”

The two shared a friendly competition over who would discover the next rising star, but Mr. Jackson always appreciated her ability to capture the essence of a performance in her writing.

“Her sensitivity to the emotional climate of the pieces — I think that was one of her strengths,” said Mr. Jackson. “She certainly will be missed.”

A professionally trained dancer herself, Mrs. Lewis often traveled the globe to find new talent — even crossing the ocean to spend two years in Japan. But she always returned to the tight-knit dance community in the District.

“I think she felt Washington was her home,” Mr. Jackson said. “This is where she naturally settled.”

Mrs. Lewis lived in the D.C. area with her first husband, Bryan Mann Battey, with whom she had four children. After a divorce, Mrs. Lewis remarried in 1969 to Paul M. Lewis. Mrs. Kriegman said that Mrs. Lewis would often bring her husband along to work.

“I felt very happy when I would see them at opening nights and would always go over and talk with them,” Mrs. Kriegsman said. “I really miss seeing them. They were a part of this little band of critics and writers and dance enthusiasts that showed up and shared a love of dance and a love of the arts.”

To the delight of local dance lovers, the Alvin Ailey company returned to Washington a year later. The headline of Mrs. Lewis‘ review embodied her own reputation as a critic: “simple, powerful appeal.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide