Homecomings can be sweet. Just ask former New York City Ballet dancer Melissa Barak. In 2007, Barak left the Company after nearly nine years, moved back to her home town of Los Angeles and joined the Los Angeles Ballet. But this month, her name appears in the NYCB Playbill once again: as a choreographer, not a dancer: when her new ballet, set to music by Benjamin Britten, makes its debut on the 21st Century Movement program.
"I'm with the Company and my friends again, so it does feel kind of like coming home," she says.
Choreographing for the Company is very much a homecoming for Barak, who has already had two of her ballets danced by NYCB. Upon seeing her first, Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, originally created for the School of American Ballet Workshop performance, New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote that Barak "moves dancers around with the precision of chess pieces." Several months later, Barak's If By Chance, set to music by Shostakovich, premiered as part of the Diamond Project, and at the age of 22, she received positive reviews for her choreography once again.
Her return to NYCB began a year ago with a letter from Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins inviting her to create a new work for the 2009 Winter Season. "He said I could do whatever I wanted but gave me a time limit," she recalls. Martins asked that the piece be no longer than 17 minutes, as he planned to pair it with his own work, Hallelujah Junction, on the program.
Barak sifted through her CD collection, surfed iTunes and came upon Britten's stealthily sophisticated symphony, originally written in 1934 for a school orchestra. "It sounded like it should have been a ballet already," she says. "It's simple but so pretty. I knew it would inspire me." With four movements, including one that's wildly romantic and one that's lighthearted and playful, it would allow her a range of mood and movement. And at 16 minutes, it was the perfect length.
It was also the perfect score for what Barak likes to do most: make pieces that are rooted firmly in ballet technique and structure. Her goal for this new piece was to create a new ballet that looks as it if was rediscovered from the past. "I thought why not go back to my roots and create a traditional ballet?" she says.
To build the new piece, she used a classic hierarchy of dancers: one principal couple, two soloist couples, and six corps women. She requested tutus with pouffy skirts and striped satin bodices. "I wanted the piece to look like a candy store with wrapped gifts and a playful innocence," she says. And as always, she took her cues from the music.
"Hearing the music I get a clear picture of the structure, how many dancers I want to use and sometimes which dancers I want to use," she explains. She also hears qualities in the music she'll want to emphasize, sees patterns she can play with and visualizes how she might open the piece. Then she goes into the studio with her dancers and figures out how it will happen.
Barak created her first ballet for the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop while she was a student at the school. "I had no choreographic experience," she says. But she had known from an early age that she wanted to be a dancer, beginning her training at the age of eight at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. And for years, she had made up ballets in her head. "It was just something I always did," she says. "When my mom would drive me to ballet school, I'd listen to music and visualize ballets."
Since her first effort at SAB, set to the third movement of Souvenir de Florence, Barak has made more than ten ballets for such companies as the Los Angeles Ballet and American Repertory Ballet. No doubt many more are ahead, but for now she still sees herself as a dancer first and foremost. She visited New York several times to set the new piece, then flew back to Los Angeles in time to appear as Marie, the Sugarplum Fairy role in the Los Angeles Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.
"I'm definitely planning on doing choreography once I feel like the dancing is done," she says. "But everything I bring to it I get from being a dancer. I love playing with music and phrasing, but I also love performing." For now it seems Barak can pirouette between life on stage and behind the scenes with ease.
Melissa Barak's new ballet will enjoy three additional performances: Feb. 26 at 8 PM and Feb. 28 at 2 and 8 PM.
For tickets and information, visit New York City Ballet.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.