It’s been a good year for women leading ballet companies: In the recent past, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell took the reins at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago; Tamara Rojo became the first female artistic director of San Francisco Ballet in the troupe’s 89-year history; and Jodie Gates is leading Cincinnati Ballet into a new era.
Add to that list 43-year old Melissa Barak. A choreographer and former professional dancer with New York City Ballet who also founded the eponymous Barak Ballet in 2013, is now the sole artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet. The troupe, founded in 2006 by the husband-and-wife team of Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen, is ready for its next chapter. And while last August’s announcement may have stunned the local dance community, for Barak, it seemed a natural progression in a career devoted to the art form.
Born and raised in the City of Angels, Barak began her ballet training at age eight at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, CA. She then went East, continuing her studies in New York City at the School of American Ballet. And, from 1998, when the dancer was invited to join NYCB, through 2007, she performed numerous works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, as well as originating roles in new ballets by, among others, Christopher Wheeldon, Elliot Feld and Robert Garland.
It was also through her time at SAB and City Ballet, that Barak began exploring her choreographic talents, premiering her “Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor” at SAB’s June Workshop performance at age 21. Encore performances soon followed and Barak was offered another City Ballet commission, this time for the company’s prestigious Diamond Project, making Barak the youngest choreographer at that time to have created an original work on the troupe.
And while Barak left City Ballet in 2007, joining the nascent Los Angeles Ballet as a leading soloist, she continued pursuing her choreographic passion, creating works over the years for a long list of companies, including Richmond Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet and Barak Ballet. Describing Barak’s 2017 premiere for her own troupe, a former Los Angeles Times writer, Laura Bleiberg, hailed “E/Space,” as “an ecstatic and mind-blowing 30-minute ride” …“a delightful melding of music, visual design and choreography.”
Barak has also made pieces on dance luminaries such as Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck and Benjamin Millepied, and in 2009 and 2010, the artist was invited to return to City Ballet, where she created two more works, “A Simple Symphony,” to the music of Benjamin Britten, and “Call Me Ben,” the latter a story ballet with dialogue that chronicled the rise and fall of mobster Bugsy Siegel.
Indeed, then New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, called the Britten work, “the evening’s most traditional item,” adding, “yet Ms. Barak’s view of tradition is an ebullient one.” Ebullience, then, could be one of Barak’s calling cards, and, coupled with her dedication and drive, the artist has also amassed a list of film and commercial credits, including making original choreography for Mattel’s feature, “Barbie in the Pink Shoes,” a 2013 film about a young girl who finds a pair of pink ballet shoes and is taken to a magical ballet land.
Named a Dance Magazine “Top 25 to Watch” in 2002, Barak was also awarded
the 2001 Mae L. Wein and Choo San Goh award for Outstanding Choreography, as well as being the inaugural recipient of the Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers through Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU in 2016.
I caught up with the newly-minted, über busy director by phone, with our conversation ranging from topics including her recent appointment, her goals for the company, and the world premiere of her evening-length “Memoryhouse, a dance commemorating the Holocaust.
How did your appointment as artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet come about—was this something you’d been wanting?
No. I was going about my business with Barak Ballet and the opportunity was presented to me as something that the company was looking to go in a new direction and would I be interested. The conversation had been happening, as most companies during Covid were reevaluating and assessing things. And LAB did a similar reflection—where the company was standing in the L.A. scene, [while] the board was conducting an evaluation and interviews with various leaders.
They were also looking at finances, how the company has grown or not grown in the last 10 years. After a thorough research effort was conducted, they came to the conclusion that this was a good time to move into a new direction.
My work with Barak Ballet was also out there, so my choreography was on display and the way I grew the company. I had a track record in terms of growth, dancers, and dancers enjoying working with me. It was incredible preparation for stepping into this role, since I had to wear every hat and tend to every form of business. This would have been our 10th year, so I was known by many and was already a dance presence in L.A. I also had a wonderful network of support and people supporting my work [which] translated into this transition to LAB.
Many people did feel like they knew who I was, what I was capable of doing, what I could bring to LAB, and I was definitely happy to accept moving this company forward. They reached out to me and I was interested. I don’t know the ins and outs of how they chose to move about in the way that they did, but I stepped in in August, 2022.
What’s your annual budget and how many dancers are in the company now. Were you able to bring any of your Barak Ballet dancers to LAB?
It’s roughly about $3.5 million and there are 30 dancers, as all the contracts were in place with the previous directors. I couldn’t bring dancers from Barak Ballet because there were no contracts open. But I’ve been finding some new dancers. We’re in the middle of negotiations and there will be some new faces.
With LAB’s previous directors, Thordal Christensen, who came from Royal Danish Ballet, and Colleen Neary, who danced with NYCB and is a Balanchine répétiteur, they programmed a lot of Balanchine and some Bournonville. Will going in a new direction include any of that repertory?
I already know what we’re doing for next season and we’re hoping to announce it in June. I’m a big Balanchine fan and I see us continue doing some Balanchine ballets, but I want our repertory to be vast, and the dancers want to dance a big repertory, so it’s important to keep some Balanchine in the repertory.
I also want us to develop our own unique style and distinguish a repertory that’s going to set us apart from other companies. That’s also my focus that’s distinct to us—bringing in new choreographers who are working today I feel would be a good fit, and new commissions.
Choreographers I’m looking at are Andrea Schermoly, who I worked with at Barak Ballet in 2019 [in “Within Without”]. She’s incredibly talented. And Dani Rowe, whose work has been at San Francisco Ballet and she’s now the new director of Oregon Ballet Theater. She did a new piece for Barak in 2019 and, Ma Cong, who was the resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet, is incredibly talented. I commissioned a new work from him [“Carry Me Anew”] in 2019 and we performed it again last July. And I’ll definitely continue making new work.
LAB presented its annual “Nutcracker” in December, which was always a crowd-pleaser. Did Thordal and Colleen come in to stage it or did you?
I had danced it for first the first five seasons—Marie, Columbine, and I was the Rose—so I set it and I hired Zippora Karz. She sets a lot of Balanchine around the country and when we do Balanchine ballets, she’d be my go-to person, helping stage and set them.
Petra Conti’s husband—Eris Nezha—when he was dancing with the company he had danced Arabian and the Prince, and also assisted in rehearsals. For the past several years Laura Chachich had been rehearsing and staging children’s roles, so she took care of the kids. We did a city-wide audition for children at the Dolby Theatre and we had kids from all over in our “Nutcracker.”
Coming up March 16-18 is an all-Wheeldon program: There are two LAB premieres, 2007’s “Fool’s Paradise” and 2008’s “Morphoses.” Then there’s “Ghosts,” from 2010. Since you’ve worked with Christopher before, the program seems in your, pardon the pun, wheelhouse! How would you describe your working relationship with him?
I’m a fan and I love dancing for Christopher [because] I’ve known him as a choreographer my whole life. He was still choreographing on SAB when I was a student and when he was a budding choreographer, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with him since then. This program had already been planned, but when I got here I decided to switch from “The American” to “Fool’s Paradise,” because I thought it was a better fit.
From May 27-June 3, LAB will dance the L.A. premiere of “Lady of the Camellias,” set to music of Chopin and choreographed by Val Caniparoli, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with San Francisco Ballet. Had you been familiar with the work?
I wasn’t, and I hadn’t seen it or knew of it before. Val sent me a video of the ballet and it’s super charming. I looked at it for casting and hiring purposes—to make sure we have the dancers we need. It’s an evening-length work with three acts. Val has a team of rehearsal directors that he would use setting [the piece] on any other company. They’ll be with us throughout the months of April and May, including Val, himself, which is great.
The company ends the season with the world premiere of your work, “Memoryhouse,” an evening-length piece commemorating the Holocaust and set to the music of Max Richter. The Holocaust wouldn’t seem to lend itself easily to dance. What attracted you to this subject matter and was anyone in your family affected by the Holocaust?
Originally the piece was set to premiere with Barak Ballet in 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust, but then Covid hit. The Holocaust has been a piece of history that always fascinated me. I was always very interested in it, even on my travels. In my 20s and 30s, I was going to see concentration camps. I went to Dachau in my early 20s. In 2019 I went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It’s the closest [camp] outside of Berlin, and I also went to Auschwitz.
My grandmother on my mom’s side fled the Soviet Union in the 1918s, but no family members that I know of perished in the Holocaust.
Visiting those camps must have been such an emotional experience. Did you go solo or with someone?
I like traveling by myself. I can’t describe it, but it was like, “I’m here.” There’s something very peaceful about being there and I was absorbing everything I could—the feeling, the overcast sky, the whole mood. It was very powerful, but peaceful at the same time.
I also visited the Anne Frank museum when I was in my 20s and various Holocaust memorial sites throughout the decades.
How did you decide on Max Richter’s music and what can audiences expect to see?
I heard Max’s “Memoryhouse” album years ago and it dawned on me: Images were coming together in my head—fragmented memories—that each movement represented a different point in time throughout that history.
This is going to be very ambiguous, more symbolic and poetic in its way. There is no text, but there is some spoken word, because on the album there’s spoken word. The title is the text. It’s hard to explain, but it’s going to be more abstract and very fragmented. There are 18 movements and it’s a full evening work; the run-time without intermission is about an hour.
What is your choreographic process like? Do you come up with an idea first, the music, the steps?
Usually it’s the music. Since the Holocaust was already an interest of mine, the music, after hearing it again and again and loving so many tracks, I was seeing imagery in my mind.
Do you consider your dancers as collaborators?
It depends who the dancers I’m working with are. I like to explore and collaborate with dancers in my studio. When I was younger, I wanted to have full control over what I saw in my head and then translate it to the dancers. I like exploring the movement and possibilies with dancers in the studio. That’s why I like working with more seasoned, experienced dancers who like to work with the choreographer and that they also like to create on their own. The give and take, that’s exciting to me.
Occasionally Colleen Neary would dance in a performance. I remember when she was Carabosse in LAB’s staging of “The Sleeping Beauty,” and I’m wondering if we’ll see you perform again in the near future?
Probably not. It would be tempting, but that’s not my priority. I do miss performing. I did perform with Barak Ballet in the first presentation we did at the Broad Stage. [Ate9’s] Danielle Agami choreographed it, but that was the last time I was onstage. There might be a time and a place when I find that it’s appropriate, [but] first I want to be the dancers’ director.
What advice do you have for aspiring dancers and/or choreographers?
For dancers—work hard, don’t compare yourself to others. It’s super important to just focus on yourself, because you‘re going to grow at your own pace. Aspire to being your best every day is a chance to focus on you.
Keep your eyes on the prize; don’t expect the world. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. At the end of the day, be proud you’re becoming the best dancer you can be, and whatever happens, you never know where anything takes you.
For choreographers, it’s the same thing, find inspiration from others. See how others have succeeded—not to compare, because your work’s going to be different from others—but to learn, to use it as a learning opportunity of what other people did to get where they are.
Have realistic expectations and do your research, because there are so many opportunities now for younger choreographers to explore. There’s ABT’s Incubator series, the New York Choreographic Institute, and Molly Lynch’s National Choreographers Initiative, but even if you have to get a couple of dancers in a room, get them on video. Instagram is a great tool if you have interesting movement, but you have to hustle.
What excites you about leading LAB into the future?
I am excited about a lot of things. I’m excited about the curation, the leadership, the vision, to really mold and help guide these dancers to being the best version of themselves. But being the director excites me more than anything. It’s a transition year. I’m taking the time to assess what’s working, what’s not working.
The one thing I’m really excited to do is to show my own season, my own vision for the company for some people who don’t know me quite well just yet. I’m looking forward to them seeing what I want to bring to the company; to let people see and understand what a new vision I can bring.