Choreographer/dancer Melissa Barak might just be one of those rare people — a deeply committed artist who is equally passionate about business. If this is the case, then she will need all the business savvy she can muster because Barak has big plans. The Los Angeles native spent nine years with the New York City Ballet, four with Los Angeles Ballet, and is now hoping to establish a ballet company in her hometown that will provide it's dancers with "the environment I always wished I had been part of. I want to create my own dance heaven."
We spoke recently at Westside School of Ballet, where she is in the middle of rehearsals for her company's debut. "I've always admired innovation, and building something from the ground up intrigues me," says Barak. It's clear that, for the time being at least, she wants to keep things scaled down. "I'm not shy or embarrassed to say we're going to start small and work our way up. Right now I'm working with several dancers locally and bringing in guests from other companies. Ideally, I'd like to hire fifteen dancers." The company's repertoire will focus on contemporary pieces. "This is going to be all about the 'new'...new voices in choreography,"says Barak.
She acknowledges that Barak Ballet, still in its infancy, is currently a labor of love. She started with a few fund raisers to gather seed money, and proudly says that enough was raised to produce the fledgling company's first official performance on March 31. "This performance is going to be my 'big ask' to the community to help me make this a reality," she says. The program will feature ballets by noted choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Frank Chaves, and a new piece by Barak. She is getting a leg up from participating in the Pasadena Arts Council's "Emerge" program, which supports new arts organizations and enables them to have non-profit status. The focus now is on building some private donors. After that, she hopes to apply for grants while continuing to build on other forms of funding.
It's no surprise that Barak, 33, has arrived at this point in her dance career. "Growing up in Los Angeles, I was always choreographing in my head, always loved listening to music, especially classical, in the car." She began to take ballet seriously at the age of 6 and studied at Westside until 16, when she went to the School of American Ballet in New York (the official school of New York City Ballet.) While at SAB she participated in a student choreography workshop and got the attention of NYCB artistic director Peter Martins. She entered the company at 18 and embarked on a kind of split existence, divided between dance and choreography. Her 2001 piece, "Telemann Overture Suite," first created for a SAB workshop, was added to City Ballet's repertoire and earned Barak her first critical success as a choreographer. "That was one of my struggles because I had just started my career and I felt like right off the bat I was seen by my director as more of a choreographer than a dancer. But, I really loved to dance, and that was where I wanted to shine."
Although she spent her entire career at City Ballet in the corps, Barak didn't lack for opportunity. "Even as a corps member, you could really stand out in that company. You're given lots of chances. Toward the second half of my time there I was doing very nice roles. I was very happy with what I was getting to do." Martins continued to support her choreography, and in 2002 the company performed her piece, "If By Chance," featuring a young dancer named Benjamin Millepied, who more recently has become known for choreographing the movie "Black Swan" and founding the LA Dance Project.
In 2007 Barak took stock and decided it was time to move on. "I was happy by the time I left, which was on a positive note. I felt good about my career there and about what I had learned and gone through." She returned to California and joined the newly formed Los Angeles Ballet. "I had done the big company thing for so long. This was a small company and I felt like I'd stand out and be able to give what I'd always wanted to give as a performer. It was also nice to be back home in a city I love with a lot of people I know." Barak continued to choreograph and perform, as well as spending part of 2009 dancing with Christopher Wheeldon's company, Morphoses. The relationship with Los Angeles Ballet ended in 2011 and Barak found herself at a crossroads. "I thought to myself, now what? Do I go into another company, go up the ladder and deal with all the politics? Do I want to do all that over again at 31? Or do I want to do my own thing and start something different. I even thought, do I want to continue dancing, or should I go into something completely different? But I love business and I love working with people. Building this company felt like the right thing. I'll still have ballet in my life, I'll be able to choreograph, and who knows -- maybe I'll dance!"
Barak's timing may prove to be fortuitous. With Millepied departing for the Paris Opera Ballet next year, there will be a new opening in the L.A. dance landscape. The two were colleagues throughout her career at NYCB, says Barak."I think Benjamin, with the success of "Black Swan" and appearing throughout the mainstream media, was able to cast a real spotlight on dance in this city...which is a wonderful thing. I've always admired his tenacity and ability to make things happen."
For now, though, Barak is taking it one step at a time. "This first performance is like, what's going to be the response? After this, we'll assess where to go next, " she said. And then, as is her way, Barak's practical side inevitably re-emerges. "A ballet company is no different from any other business. You start small and grow organically. You take your time building a solid foundation with a network of supporters who believe in your vision and you grow as big as the company is meant to grow. You really can't force these things."
Barak Ballet, Sunday, March 31 at 7 p.m. Ann & Jerry Moss Theater, Santa Monica. Limited number of tickets available
Photos of Melissa Barak by Judy Graeme/LA Observed