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A New Multi-Dimensional Dance Performance Debuts for One Night

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Santa Monica and Barak Ballet artistic director Melissa Barak is setting her latest choreography on nine dancers, all glistening from five hours of rehearsal. 

“You’re all rushing a little bit. Go a tad slower than the music sounds,” she says from the large studio she rents inside Westside School of Ballet.  “And I need you to drill down.  Don’t stop and just mark [your movement].”

Barak Ballet Rehearsal | Courtesy of Barak Ballet

As she works to refine the choreography, there are other things on Barak’s mind; dance is just one element of her new multi-dimensional work, “E/SPACE,” which debuts for a one-night performance at Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage June 24 at 8 p.m. The work also includes an original score by Emmy-nominated composer David Lawrence and lighting by Turkish-born acclaimed media artist Refik Anadol.

She describes her latest production as a dance performance “with an art installation feel, where different mediums come together in a collaborative immersive 3-D environment.” According to Barak, she’s not even sure what to expect when all the media meet for the first time during technical rehearsal, but she said: “Lighting will project across the front of the stage on a shark tooth scrim allowing the audience to see the dancers clearly.” She indicated that the performance includes moments where only lighting is on stage, and also sections where dance will complement the light designs that Anadol has created.

The evening’s program also includes “Eos Chasma” (a collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab that debuted in the fall) and “Tableaux Vivant,” which Barak Ballet performed last June.

Barak, a former New York City Ballet (NYCB) dancer who grew up in Los Angeles and trained at Crossroads, Westside School of Ballet and School of American Ballet, knows that great dance is in the details. With no world-class ballet companies based in L.A. during her formative dance years, Barak relied on visiting professional companies to understand the nuances that separated the wheat from the chaff. 

“My mother used to take me to see visiting companies like Joffrey and the American Ballet Theatre, and I recall one performance with Susan Jaffe in ‘Manon.’ Seeing the way she moved and her articulation — just how finessed and how beautiful it was — I remember thinking, ‘That’s how it’s done.’”

Before launching Barak Ballet in 2013, Barak spent 8 1/2 years with NYCB. Though she had been recognized at City Ballet for her talent in choreography and dance, she saw something bigger for herself. In 2007 Barak headed west again to join the then-fledgling Los Angeles Ballet for five seasons as a principal dancer.

“I wanted to grow as an artist. I had a talk with (NYCB Ballet Master in Chief) Peter Martins and I don’t think he saw for me what I wanted for me,” she explained. “I would have continued on a really nice path there…I was doing a lot of nice roles as a soloist and principal, certainly demi and featured roles, so I wasn’t in a bad way, I just wanted more and I knew that wasn’t the vision he had for me.  I knew in a smaller company I’d have a better chance.”

Melissa Barak at her rehearsal | Ed Krieger
Melissa Barak at her rehearsal | Ed Krieger

As many who have come before her, Barak admits to encountering some challenges along the way in trying to sell dance and a dance company to the Los Angeles community. “But we’ve really managed to create a strong reputation,” she says. “The artists and institutions that have offered to collaborate and work with us tell me we are on a very good path.”

Barak collaborator David Lawrence, a composer with critically-acclaimed scores for such popular media franchises as “High School Musical” and “American Pie” on his resume, approached Barak after his wife (musician and composer Faye Greenberg) read about Barak in the press and urged him to explore artistic collaboration opportunities with her.

“My nightmare was that Melissa was going to dance around the studio and I would follow her with my piano…I had no idea of how it would go,” says Lawrence,” But because she’s surgically specific about what she’s looking for — the mood and tone — usually I’ll come up with ideas from scratch and she’ll know exactly what parts she likes and responds to.”

And Barak also had very clear ideas about what type of company today’s audiences might respond to. She feels that every dancer has a talent that can be mined, if freed from the confines of the classical ballet model: “We should be celebrating individuality of dancers.”

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Melissa Barak working with her dancers during rehearsal | Ed Krieger
Melissa Barak working with her dancers during rehearsal | Ed Krieger

While she describes herself “in the neoclassical vein,” she says it’s a need for artistic growth that keeps pushing her in varied directions choreographically and searching for new collaborations.

“I see Barak Ballet steadily building a unique and high caliber repertoire that sets us apart from other rep companies. Collaborating with artists from many genres is of utmost interest to me, both from a practical and an artistic perspective. My grand vision is that we get to a place where we become a resident company with one of the major concert venues in L.A....and appear in festivals throughout this country and internationally,” Barak said.

Dancers rehearsing | Ed Krieger
Dancers rehearsing | Ed Krieger

As rehearsal continues, with only a couple of weeks to go before curtain, Barak pushes forward with the next phrases of choreography to Lawrence’s melodic but complex score which, together with Anadol’s artistry with lighting, will create a “cyber matrix type of world.”

“I’m finishing the ballet today!” she proclaims, as her dancers “take five” to adjust pointe shoes and change into dry clothing. And then she turns to the mirror and disappears into the movement again...her vision for its ending in clear sight.

Barak Ballet’s E/SPACE premieres Saturday, June 24 at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage at 8 p.m. For tickets please visit here. The program also includes Barak Ballet’s Eos Chasma and Tableaux Vivant.

Top Image: Courtesy of Barak Ballet

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