Choreographer Barak Marshall Returns to His Roots

The native Angeleno presents his work “Harry” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

The stars seem to be aligned for Israeli-American choreographer Barak Marshall. His contemporary pieces have won awards at international dance festivals, and his work with Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, among other troupes, remains critically acclaimed. Now he brings his talents to Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal for a repertory program—only tonight and Saturday night—at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. His high-energy piece Harry joins with Benjamin Millepied’s duet Closer and Wen Wei Wang’s Night Box, an ode to urban street life. We talked with Marshall about his creative vision and growing up in L.A.

Why were you inspired to create Harry specifically for the dancers of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal?
It was the versatility and humanity of the dancers. Many repertory dance companies have very narrow repertoires and are concerned solely with technique. The culture of BJM is different. Their repertoire is incredibly varied, and they are incredible technicians. But the director of the company [Louis Robitaille] really encourages the dancers to bring their own identities and interpretations to the work, and this allowed me to create a true dance-theater piece.

What messages are you conveying through movement and music?
We all struggle against forces—both internal and external—that work to deprive us of our own free will and silence our authentic voice. Most of my works deal with this struggle for self-determination.  Harry tells a simple story about a man who defies fate, the gods, the cruelties of others, and death to be with the woman he loves. It is not dark—I don’t believe in darkness. I try and create works that are filled with hope and humor, which is the antidote to these forces.

The range of music is fascinating—everything from Maria Callas to Wayne Newton to Tommy Dorsey. How did you weave together such diverse musical pieces to form a cohesive performance?
Thank you. Well, before I was a choreographer, I was a singer and a musician. Without music there is no dance. So while I begin all of my works with a fragment of a story that I want to tell, I can only see it when I hear it. In creating the soundtrack of each piece, I usually listen to around 10,000 tracks of music to find the 15 to 20 pieces of music that will eventually make up the final score. It is the music that creates the narrative and dramaturgical arc of the work. My process involves collecting many images, stories, ideas, songs, gestures, and movements, and little by little an image might resonate with a story, a piece of music, or a movement and create the beginning of a section. Slowly a storyboard emerges. But it is the music that ultimately shapes everything.

Does your background as a native Angeleno also influence your choreographic choices?
Of course. I was born and raised in Los Angeles by an Israeli mother who was born in the British Protectorate of Aden, southern Yemen, and a father from the Bronx. Both of my parents are amazing singers, and they made sure that I was exposed to every musical genre possible—opera, big-band jazz, flamenco, Indian, African, Yiddish, rock, and on and on. I believe this is the reason that, for me, dance begins with music and why my scores are quite eclectic. Growing up in Los Angeles meant growing up in one of the most diverse cities in the world, where I was taught to appreciate each culture’s uniqueness and beauty. I am very proud to be an Angeleno.  

What’s it like to return to L.A. for this program?
I spend much of the year touring or creating work abroad, but Los Angeles is home. I am incredibly honored to have such a great company that will present my work in such a great venue. I get to share my work with my family, friends, and my city. I hope they like it.