Melissa Barak was 31 when she began writing out a mission statement to launch her new company, Barak Ballet. Two years later, in March 2013, the native Angeleno and former New York City Ballet dancer had formed a troupe and arranged its public debut. In a city like Los Angeles, which has long struggled to find a dedicated audience—and home—for classical dance, that’s no easy feat for an artistic director at that age. But Barak, now 35, has clearly thrived, and this Friday and Saturday nights she’s showing three pieces at the Broad Stage. Called Triple Bill, the program includes two pieces of her own choreography (Yueh Fei and Middle of Somewhere) and one by Nicolo Fonte (Left Unsaid). We spoke with Barak about her artistic process and her vision for the future.
What can audiences expect to see this weekend?
Melissa Barak: All the pieces on our Triple Bill program are very different from each other. Yueh Fei opens the program and is our largest work in terms of its cast. It offers a worldly, fairytale-like series of scenes telling a story in a modern and abstract way. The music, by Huang Ruo, is contemporary with a strong Chinese influence and evokes undeniable atmosphere. The music and the ballet are both unique and unexpected. The costumes we’ve designed are pretty wild, too. Let’s just say it is the most colorful ballet on the program!
Nicolo Fonte’s Left Unsaid is the second work—a beautiful, highly acclaimed modern ballet that is set to music by J.S. Bach. It is wonderfully serene and explores the dynamic of relationships among its dancers.
Finally, Middle of Somewhere is the last piece of the night. Originally made for Sacramento Ballet’s Modern Master’s program last year, this ballet is our most neoclassical of the three, with a lyrical first movement followed by a rousing second movement finale. The music is by Ezio Bosso.
What inspired you to create Yueh Fei and Middle of Somewhere? What are you conveying through the movement?
MB: As with most of my work, the music is what was the source of inspiration for both pieces. Yueh Fei is a score I began playing with in 2007. As unique and beautiful as I found it to be, I knew it would be challenging and would force me to go in a different direction as a choreographer. I also wanted to take on the challenge of telling the story of Yueh Fei in an abstract way by strictly using choreography instead of mime. Middle of Somewhere is a purely music-based ballet. I chose to create steps and movements that would give the dancers a chance to infuse them with their own personalities, interpretations, and meanings. There’s a real lovely freedom for a dancer in such a ballet, and that authenticity of expression certainly does not go unnoticed by an audience.
What is your artistic process like as a choreographer?
MB: I usually come in with some basis for an idea, sometimes more fully realized than others. Then I work with the dancers and begin to explore their artistic strengths and abilities. It’s the dancers who will be bringing a ballet to life at the end of the day, so you want to create choreography that will make them shine, or perhaps push them but in a way that is realistic for them. In the studio we play and try things. Some ideas are great, others are not so great. Sometimes mistakes happen, which can spawn a whole new idea. And before you know it, a ballet is taking shape and the movement is taking on a life of its own.
What’s most challenging about this program, and what are your favorite parts?
MB: There are moments and images that I particularly like, but I like to let audiences decide for themselves. You never know what strikes people and why.
What do you most enjoy about being a choreographer?
MB: As a choreographer, it’s up to me to set the tone—the tone of a dance piece, the dynamic between myself and the dancers, the collaborative environment, all of which will translate into what will be presented on the stage eventually. I like that kind of control. As the choreographer and director, I conduct the many components that go into making a dance performance potentially great.
Who inspires you?
MB: I find Stoner Winslett, director of Richmond Ballet, to be a pretty amazing leader. I recently had the honor of working with the company, and I saw firsthand how she manages to create a beautiful balance within the institution—between the dancers’ work ethic and artistic integrity to the positive and healthy atmosphere that they all work in. It’s not easy to find! Also, as a fellow female leader in dance, she stands out as someone who makes a strong impression on me. In terms of choreography, there are many working choreographers today I admire: Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, Crystal Pite, Paul Lightfoot. They all have such wonderful ideas and unique styles that have forced me to grow and learn from.
What is your take on the state of dance in Los Angeles?
MB: We are seeing a lot of movement and growth within the L.A. dance community in the last several years. Quite a few local companies are seeing much success in L.A. and beyond. It’s great! I do, however, wish a theater would strictly devote itself to dance programming, present the strong locally based dance companies here, and truly help build a devoted dance audience and culture. Sadly I feel that until that happens, dance will always get overshadowed and lost in the mix. As of now, there is no true home for dance.
In your down time, what are your favorite places to explore here?
MB: I don’t have time to do much these days, but I always love trying out new restaurants and brunch spots! Beachwood Cafe is a fave brunch spot of mine. République on La Brea and Barbrix in Silver Lake are cool. I love seeing concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre. Hanging out at the Original Farmers Market on Fairfax is always nice, and I love killing time and shopping at the Malibu Country Mart when I find myself in that part of town. Hiking and taking in nature all around the city. L.A.’s a great place, I love that I’m from here!