by Michael Aushenker
As a little girl growing up in West Hollywood in the 1980s and ‘90s, Melissa Barak used to take ballet lessons at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. In some ways, not much has changed. She still lives in West Hollywood and practices hours of ballet at Westside School of Ballet. Only these days, the stakes are higher: Barak now runs her own ballet company, which will perform at The Broad Stage on Thursday, Oct. 24.
“This is our second show. … We’re a newborn,” Barak told the Argonaut after a solid day of rehearsing in Santa Monica for the upcoming performance of “L.A. Moves.”
After getting her high school education at Crossroads in Santa Monica, Barak never matriculated into college. She moved to New York and joined the New York City Ballet, where she spent eight years touring the world — Russia, Japan, Greece, Italy, Scotland, Denmark — working with master choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Eliot Feld on production after production (“Serenade,” “Union Jack,” “Stars and Stripes”) and interpreting George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
“Those first years were definitely a challenge,” Barak recalled of her days with the Lincoln Center dance troupe. “Being a big fish in a small pond, in one of the foremost companies in the world. So much talent, the competition’s fierce. The amount of work, you perform every night, you’re learning new ballets constantly, it’s an all day all night job, six days out of the week. To learn how to keep your body strong and stay strong mentally, physically. Once I got the hang of it, I got the experience of being it.”
The pace became relentless, rehearsing, touring, performing winter seasons at 14 weeks at a time, spring seasons nine weeks at a clip, with nary a break, she said.
After living in apartments on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and West Harlem, and in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section — “before it became super-duper hipster,” she said — Barak finally found her way back West, joining Los Angeles Ballet from 2007 to 2011. All the while, something nagged at her: “I kind of always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to create a company on my own,” she said.
Now, “It’s like a full-time job,” Barak said of running her own company. “There’s a lot of work to get done; a lot of money to raise, taking care of odds and ends while you’re raising money, designing brochures and programs, [cutting] checks for the dancers.”
Barak feels fortunate to be back at Westside School, utilizing its chambers for rehearsal space.
“I’m very lucky to have such a beautiful studio and stage,” she said of the Santa Monica institution, which opened in 1967. “I am very lucky to find this home while I’m building this company.”
Barak’s company debuted with a showcase at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre at New Roads School in Santa Monica, where she staged four pieces – three duets and a choreographed ensemble featuring four dancers.
At the Broad Stage, she will mount two ensemble pieces (one piece with eight dancers and one with six performers), a solo piece and a duet.
Kelly Ann Sloan, a member of Barak’s company, said Barak’s guidance is propelling her toward doing some of her best work.
“She’s a very musical choreographer,” Sloan said of Barak. “Her movement really speaks to the music. What she comes up with really goes hand in hand with the music. It just feels natural with the body.”