On August 8, 2022 I published an article titled “What Is Happening at LA Ballet?” and my reporter instincts were proven correct with the recent announcement that the company’s Board of Directors has appointed Melissa Barak new Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet (LAB). Understandably, there was a bit of secrecy surrounding this decision, but the signs pointing to an inevitable change were there for anyone writing about dance in Los Angeles. LAB’s 2022/2023 season has yet to be announced and the word emeritus suddenly appeared behind the names of Co-founding Artistic Directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. Inquiries into the why were met with statements of an exciting change that was coming or unreturned phone calls.
With a strong connection to the George Balanchine Trust, LAB was Co-founded in 2004 and has remained true to its original mission of performing works by Balanchine (Agon, Concerto Barocco, Serenade, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Divertimento No. 15, Prodigal Son, Who Cares?), full-length classical ballets (Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, and Don Quixote), and works by more contemporary choreographers such Aszure Barton, Alejandro Cerrudo, August Bourneville, Sir Frederick Aston, José Limón, Jiří Kylián, Sonya Tayeh, Christopher Stowell, Lar Lubovitch, and others. With this continued pledge to professional standards, LAB has succeeded in becoming the longest running ballet company in Los Angeles.
Born in Los Angeles, Melissa Barak began her ballet training at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, CA under the direction of Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire. After moving to New York City, Barak continued her ballet training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official school of NYCB. She was invited to join NYCB in 1998 where she performed in numerous works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and originated roles in new ballets by Christopher Wheeldon, Elliot Feld, and Robert Garland, among others. At age 21, Barak choreographed a new work, Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, that was performed first at the SAB summer workshop and then included in NYCB’s following season. She has also created new works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Richmond Ballet, Dayton Ballet, American Repertory Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, and Los Angeles Ballet. In addition to Barak’s numerous works, Barak Ballet, founded in 2013, has commissioned ballets by well-established choreographers Ma Cong, Andi Schermoly, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolas Blanc, Pascal Rioult, Frank Chavez, and Norbert De La Cruz and others.
Barak began her new position as Artistic Director of Los Angeles Ballet on August 15, 2022, and graciously agreed to a Zoom interview during which I was able to ask her questions about this new adventure for her, LAB’s future repertoire, and the dancers who will perform with the company.
JS: Is this a merging of Barak Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet?
“My Board will be merging with the LAB Board,” Barak said. “LAB has a strong infrastructure, talented staff, and just more of the resources needed to really move a company ahead. I’m going to be putting 100% focus on Los Angeles Ballet. Barak Ballet will essentially be inactive for the time being.”
JS: I went to LAB’s website before this interview and the 2022/2023 season had still not been announced, so when will the new season be published?
“It should be coming out soon,” Barak said, “ A few contracts and agreements are still getting finalized. All has to get sorted out before tickets can go on sale. I think that September 1st is the goal.
Barak informed me that with the exception of her ballet MemoryHouse, which was originally scheduled to appear at BroadStage June 15-17, 2023, LAB’s coming season was previously set by the former directors Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen.
“MemoryHouse will be presented via Los Angeles Ballet now,” she said. “It will still be my choreography. It is going to be exactly the piece that it was meant to be, but it is just going to be under the umbrella of Los Angeles Ballet. But the rest of the season had already been programmed. There will be meetings taking place pretty soon to plan for ‘23/’24 and ‘24/’25.”
JS: What changes do you anticipate?
“I think that there will be a lot,” she answered. “I think that it is going to be a lot of good changes. Definitely an expansion of the repertoire. More variety in the repertoire.”
She talked about the vision that she had for Barak Ballet and the spirit that the company portrayed to audiences, and how that was coming together. “If people are familiar with Barak Ballet, she added. “They could expect to see a bit of that in Los Angeles Ballet, but this is a much bigger platform and I’ll be able to hire more dancers, consistently hire through the year, we’ll be able to do bigger pieces, and bigger commissions. I have a lot of ideas, a lot of things that were going to be much more difficult for Barak Ballet to achieve, or at least anytime soon.” Barak is hopeful that many of her creative ideas will now come to fruition via LAB.
JS: When you talk about bigger pieces, are you referring to full-length ballets?
“With full-length ballets, I think it is tricky because full-lengths need to be seen on certain stages to accommodate for the grandness of it, certain sets, and the opulence of it,” she answered. “I don’t like to see a story ballet meant to be seen on a big stage squeezed onto a small stage.”
Barak went on to say that LAB will do story ballets, but that they will just have to rethink what that looks like, which versions the company does and/or do they create new ones.
“I want LAB to continually grow and advance, both artistically and in terms of business,” she added. “It is always a balancing act because there will be people who buy tickets who want to see the story ballets. So it is going to be me with the staff working out what we need to do, what we need to present. We have to balance the business with what I would like to see done artistically. That’s going to take time but I’m certain that we will find that balance and that there will be something for everyone to see.”
JS: Will you continue to present Balanchine works and what is your relationship with the Balanchine Trust in New York?
She answered that she has a good relationship with Ellen Sorin and Nancy Reynolds, who was at one time the director of the trust and she is familiar with a lot of people who set Balanchine ballets on other companies. “ I have a good relationship with New York City Ballet,” Barak added. “We will definitely keep some Balanchine in the rep. I would love to bring in some of Jerome Robbins’ works as well as many other choreographic voices that are out there.”
JS: The overall repertory or works for Barak Ballet consisted of more contemporary ballets then that of LAB. What are the easiest and the hardest changes that you foresee making in the future – starting with the easiest?
“For me,” Barak began. “It’s all about the dancers that I’m working with. I really like to meet dancers where they are.” She explained that that is what she had to do with Barak Ballet and that she was extremely lucky that there were many talented dancers, both locally and otherwise, who were excited to work with her. “A change in leadership is never easy,” she continued. “I’m stepping into a company where all the dancers were hired by the previous director.”
The company has not yet reconvened, so in order to get to know these dancers and how they move, Barak has asked them to send her videos of some barre and center work. She is looking forward to getting to know the current slate of dancers and work on what will be need in order to make this coming season a success.
So far, Barak emphasized, everyone seems lovely and really “jazzed” about starting this new chapter.”
We discussed how LAB is the only ballet company to survive in Los Angeles this long. “Yes, it’s a big accomplishment and that’s why it is so exciting,” Barak said. “Clearly there is a good team behind the company. The company has seen long standing success and it is really exciting to step in at a time when everything is there, and it’s primed to really take off.”
“When I came to LAB as a dancer, I was hoping to help shape what ballet could be in Los Angeles,” she continued. “Now, obviously , as a director it is a whole different ball game.”
JS: When did you dance with LAB?
“I was there for the first five seasons,” Barak answered. She was dancing with New York City Ballet when LAB was first introduced to Los Angeles audiences in 2006,with Christensen and Neary’s The Nutcracker. She left NYCB just in time to join LAB’s first repertory program which was Concerto Barocco, Agon and Serenade (all Balanchine works). That first season also included Bournonville’s Napoli, and Balanchine’s Apollo and Rubies. “I was the second violin in Barocco, and the first principal dancer to step onstage for a rep. program,” she added.
JS: Circling back to The Nutcracker; knowing that there had to be some legalities to work out, will LAB perform Christensen and Neary’s version this year.
“Yes, we are going to be performing their Nutcracker this season. We have everything ready. The choreography is set. A lot of the dancers know it. We’ve got the sets and the costumes. By 2024 or certainly by ’25 the goal is to present an entirely new Nutcracker.
When asked if she has had experience setting an entire production of The Nutcracker, Barak said no, but that in 2016 she choreographed a Nutcracker Suite for LA Phil which involved the party scene and the ballet’s second act.
JS: Now that you have this new position and company structure supporting what you do, what kind of dancers are you considering?
“I love seasoned, experienced dancers,” Barak explained. “When it comes to hiring, I always tend to lean towards a mature quality. Musicality is super important. Their athletic ability. A sensuality: just like a kind of perfume that they bring – that a dancer’s movement isn’t just cut and dry.”
Barak wants a dancer who can put forth their own personality while performing and someone who is willing to work hard, to take chances and to take risks. “Not to be too perfectionistic, allow yourself to explore, make mistakes and to grow from that. That takes a more mature mentality.” She wants dancers who know who they are and who are comfortable in their own skin.
In terms of dance styles, I appreciate a Balanchine training. “I wouldn’t say the full on School of American Ballet, but a Balanchine trained dancer who knows how to move quickly, precisely, move their legs and feet with precision. I’ve always managed to find dancers from various training backgrounds.” She went on to say that in Barak Ballet the dancers always appeared to crystalize despite the diverse training that they had while growing up. Because the current LAB dancers have already been contracted, members of Barak Ballet will only be included in the company when they perform Barak’s MemoryHouse next year.
JS: How do you see your role in helping to raise the visibility of dance in Los Angeles when the larger newspapers are not covering local companies?
“I believe it begins with the repertoire that we are presenting,” Barak said. “The dancers that we bring together and the collaborations that we’ve got planned and future collaborations. There are a ton of resources in Los Angeles and there’s a hunger to see really good ballet, contemporary ballet. I think that the performing arts is the next frontier for LA to really conquer because we’ve come quite a ways with museums, with theater, and even the dining scene in LA is really great! There are so many fabulous restaurants now to go to in LA.” Barak truly thinks that this time in LA is the beginning of something new and exciting for dance.
“I think that touring is also something that will help raise the company’s profile,” Barak said. It was exciting news to hear that LAB is planning to begin touring. “You have to have a notable repertoire and something unique to offer for theaters to present you. What are doing differently is what’s going to get us noticed.”
As I wrote in an earlier article, the larger LA venues are beginning to present, commission and to produce local companies and now is the time for LAB to take advantage of this change. “There are a lot of really great dance companies now in LA. Two of the companies she mentioned were BODYTRAFFIC and L.A. Dance Project. “It is a very exciting time for dance in Los Angeles!”
When asked if there was anything that we had not discussed that she wanted our readers to know about this new adventure of hers, Barak said, “I just want to have fun! I want to make it a great company. I want to make it a nationally and internationally recognized company. Barak Ballet, no doubt, provided me the confidence and the wherewithal to move into this next new step.”
She told me that they had fun at Barak Ballet due to the creative energy and people inspiring each other. “It was a dynamic that I certainly want to see replicated for Los Angeles Ballet, she continued. “There’s a lot of great work out there both already created and yet to be created. That is what is so exciting! The possibilities are endless. The collaborations are endless. It takes someone with a good eye.”
After speaking with Melissa Barak, I have confidence that she is that person and we all wish her and Los Angeles Ballet the best.
For more information on Los Angeles Ballet, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Melissa Barak – Photo by Jin Lee