While New York has sustained sizable, world-renowned dance companies for decades, Los Angeles has yet to follow suit. Melissa Barak, ballet dancer and choreographer, sees dance as L.A.'s "next artistic frontier." Her vision is to create Barak Ballet, a company dedicated to new, contemporary choreography rooted in classical technique.
Barak, 33, grew up in L.A. and, after nearly a decade dancing in New York City, returned in 2007 to her hometown. (She now lives in West Hollywood.) Even as a spirited 8-year-old at Santa Monica's Westside School of Ballet, Barak knew she "never wanted to quit." At age 18 she joined New York City Ballet, where the director recognized Barak's flair for choreography and admired her dedication to classical style. Four of her pieces now are part of the company's repertoire.
After performing ensemble parts for nine years, Barak, not yet 30, decided to move on. She joined the just-launched Los Angeles Ballet and danced lead roles, most notably the sultry Siren in "Prodigal Son," an esteemed work by the legendary George Balanchine.
After four years, in 2011, came unexpected news. "I was notified via email I would not be hired any longer," Barak says. "I think the directors have a vision of what they want their dancers to look like, act like, perform like ... and it didn't seem I fit into that vision any longer."
It's likely that Barak's outspoken, forward-thinking attitude clashed with the ballet company's more traditional approach.
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Leaving Los Angeles Ballet gave her more time to choreograph — for workshops, companies and Barbie in the Pink Shoes, a straight-to-DVD animated film. Still, the question loomed: What next?
Most ballet dancers don't perform past their late 30s. But Barak had never shied from big dreams. Why not create the ballet heaven that had eluded her previously? Her company could celebrate unique dancing styles and reject the traditional ideal of identical swans gliding in unison. Barak had too often experienced that demand for conformity, and found it "stifling." It sometimes made her wonder, "What are we, an army?"
In rehearsal for Barak Ballet's March 31 "Pre-Launch Performance," she facilitated an environment in which dancers could feel at ease and expressive. At one point, she explained hand motions by joking, "Don't throw gang signs," prompting giggles and a friendly repartee.
Though it was Easter Sunday, Barak's supporters nearly filled the new, 350-seat Ann and Jerry Moss Theater in Santa Monica for the show. The hourlong program presented four contemporary ballets, including Barak's frolicking "La Follia," set to music by Vivaldi. After the final bows, she took the stage, elegant in a black pantsuit and tall pumps, her silky brown hair hanging loose. Barak will not dance in her company, at least not now. She is too busy planning its future.