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Former NYCB performer Melissa Barak brings her own troupe to the Joyce Ballet Festival
The Joyce Ballet Festival (June 26-July 7) is a homecoming of sorts for Melissa Barak. The dancer-choreographer launched her professional career here in the city, performing with New York City Ballet from 1998 to 2007. Now her eponymous Los Angeles-based troupe is making its New York debut as the climactic company in the fest's lineup.
Throughout her career, Barak, 38, has made bold, often unexpected choices. While still a student at the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet, she signed up for choreography workshops. Then, early in her NYCB tenure, she participated in the inaugural year of the New York Choreographic Institute, which nurtures developing dance-makers. Her debut work was Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor for the School of American Ballet's 2001 showcase. It garnered acclaim and caught the eye of NYCB's then artistic director, Peter Martins. He added the ballet to the company's repertory the following year, and soon commissioned a second piece from Barak. Taking on a completely different type of score, she created a striking abstract work with a forbidden-love theme, set to a Shostakovich sonata.
But her own dancing was her priority, and in 2007 Barak initiated a "frank discussion" with Martins about what roles might be in store for her. "I wasn't unsatisfied, but as an artist, you have that need to grow," she says. "You feel that hunger to do something different, to try something new. I was ready to take a chance, and see what else I was capable of."
When it became clear that she wouldn't be offered the opportunities she craved, she realized it was time to move on. "I didn't want to feel that one person was going to put that limit on me," she recalls. "That didn't sit well."
She returned to her hometown of L.A. to join the recently formed Los Angeles Ballet, led by two former NYCB members. "I felt better than I had in a long time," she says. "I felt confident and strong. I knew how to take care of my body and cope with the everyday stress of a ballet career. I just wanted to take that knowledge and start from scratch somewhere new."
She spent five years with the company dancing some choice Balanchine roles, using breaks to pursue choreography. NYCB even commissioned her to create two additional ballets, in 2009 and 2010.
The decision to launch her own troupe in 2013 was a natural evolution. "I think in the back of my mind I always wanted to start a ballet company, because I love business and I love creativity," she says. "A company bridges those two so beautifully." Aside from a solo during the first season, Barak hasn't performed with the troupe, though she does choreograph consistently for the company. However, she's always on the lookout for other dance-makers. "What's exciting about being a director is finding choreographic talent -- people who have something interesting to say."
One such discovery is Nicolas Blanc, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer whose second work for Barak Ballet, Desert Transport, is on the Joyce program. Barak considers him "a kindred spirit. He pays attention to the nuances of a score, and also the emotions that can be conveyed. I feel like we listen to music, and react, in a similar way."
Two works by Barak complete the Joyce lineup: Cypher, which recently premiered in L.A., is set to a piece by emerging composer Molly Joyce. "I really like her music," Barak says. "It has a lot of power and syncopation, a unique sound." Meanwhile E/SPACE, an adventurous collaboration with composer David Lawrence and media artist Refik Anadol, was described by the Los Angeles Times as "an ecstatic and mind-blowing 30-minute ride."
"Our company is very committed to collaborations of all kinds," says Barak, whose troupe has worked with a wide variety of artists, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's that mixture of business and artistry, the marriage of those two things that I really truly enjoy."
Following her interests and instincts has led to an impressive first five years for her ballet troupe, which heads to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival after the Joyce. "I'm really proud to have built a company that dancers love being part of," Barak says. "It's a special place to perform and work, and part of this broader L.A. dance community that's starting to flourish."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Julia Erickson and Thomas Brown in Barak Ballet's E/SPACE. Photos by David Friedman.