Melissa Barak ventures into uncharted territory with “OFF Balance”

By Christina Campodonico

San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten guests for a program put together by Barak Ballet’s Melissa Barak (Left: Photo by David and Estzer Matheson Photography / Right: Photo by Jin Lee)

Ballet is a world of structure — a language of poses and positions usually timed to a precise note or beat. But what if you frayed the edges of its strict adher-
ence to timing and rhythm, transforming a style of dance tailored to peacocking into something less presentational and more observational?

That’s the idea Barak Ballet artistic director Melissa Barak wanted to investigate for “OFF Balance,” her dance company’s new (and she hopes annual) experimental dance program that invites L.A. artists and friends to collaborate with each other through dance, music and — for this weekend’s shows in Santa Monica — multimedia.

Barak has invited SFDanceworks Associate Artistic Director Danielle Rowe to premiere a new work on Saturday alongside Barak’s “Off The Grid,” and both are working with media artists and floor projections to create more immersive experiences. Barak’s media elements (designed by Tommy Etkin and Jon Macleod of audiovisual collective Optexture and Sebastian Peschiera of Narduli Studio) offer “a bird’s eye view of what’s going on the floor,” she says.

A Westside School of Ballet alumna and former ballerina with New York City Ballet, Barak’s latest piece offered a chance to explore uncharted dance territory for herself.

“It’s probably the most contemporary thing I’ve ever done,” she says. It’s an intriguing statement coming from the choreographer who injected a new level of innovation into L.A.’s dance scene with her digitally-driven “E/Space,” a celestial whirl of dance and projections that made its premiere at The Broad Stage in 2017.

“My comfort zone is neo-classical ballet … but this is like a lot more grounded,” she says of “Off The Grid.” “Like I was telling my dancers the other day, when you’re doing a ballet, you’re usually dancing with the sense or the mentality that you want to be watched. You’re kind of thinking, ‘Watch me.’ …. Then what I was explaining to them for this piece: ‘You want people to observe you.’

“It’s coming more from a place of forcing the audience to kind of research you and discover you, as opposed to hitting a pose and hitting a thing on the note. It doesn’t have to be so concise and perfect. I want the movement to be a little bit more human and raw and genuine and less forced — to make it really natural and real, which has been a challenge for me and my dancers because they’re all such fabulous ballet dancers.”

Barak is also exploring more existential territory too — human evolution, technology and “how our environment used to control us, but now through technology we’re more in control of our environment.”

“… But I’m also sort of exploring how we’ve become a little detached from nature and from each other due to
technology,” she continues.

Ultimately, Barak hopes that “OFF Balance” will become a laboratory where artists can collaborate, “cross-pollinate” and launch new barrier-breaking works. For this weekend’s shows, expect San Francisco Ballet’s Sarah Van Patten to cross paths with the strains of violinist Heather Powell in Rowe’s “Before You Had a Name” and Barak’s choreography doing additional alchemy with composer David Lawrence’s music and lighting design by Nathan Scheuer.

“It would be amazing if some real artistic ground was broken,” says Barak. “We’re creating a space for new ideas and new things to be explored, and sometimes things will probably be great and other things may not be as great, but it’s about trying something new. We can’t see greatness, we can’t see the next level in artistic expression without taking chances.”

“OFF Balance” premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday (March 16), with additional shows at 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (March 17) in The Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45 at barakballet.org.

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