As a child, every time Melissa Barak heard a new piece of music, she would picture movements that went with it. In fact, her mother often found her re-creating entire numbers from movie musicals around the house. Now, the 28-year-old is with Los Angeles Ballet (after dancing with New York City Ballet for several years) and is making a name for herself as a choreographer. In 2001, at only 22, she was the youngest choreographer ever commissioned to create a work for NYCB, and she’s since continued to garner awards and commissions. Her work is music-driven, experiments with a variety of styles and is characterized by a sense of play. Melissa is definitely on the fast track—and she’s still performing! DS has the scoop on this artist to watch.
Melissa started studying dance at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, CA, and in 1996, she moved to NYC to study at the School of American Ballet. There she had the first of several roles created for her by then on-the-rise choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, whom she regards, along with Jerome Robbins, as a great inspiration.
Even though dancing was her primary focus, while at SAB she also began to hone her choreographic chops. When SAB posted a sign announcing its first-ever student choreography workshop, Melissa decided on a whim to sign up. Soon she was creating her debut piece, Souvenir de Florence. “Until then, I didn’t fully realize that I was always choreographing in my head,” she says.
That first piece impressed NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins so much that he invited Melissa to choreograph for the inaugural year of his next project, The New York Choreographic Institute, which provides mentorship and resources for aspiring classical choreographers. Melissa went on to contribute four works over the next few years, while still creating pieces for SAB workshops. Her 2001 SAB workshop piece, Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, was a turning point. It earned her critical success and recognition as a dancer with huge choreographic potential—Martins appreciated Telemann’s sophisticated, fresh and polished look so much that he added it to NYCB’s repertoire! It debuted at the New York State Theater in the winter of 2002.
Next up: A piece for the 2002 Diamond Project, If by Chance. Set to a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, it was a re-rendering of Romeo and Juliet with exquisite partnering work set against strong corps dancing. “It was scary to choreograph on the actual company, and I was shocked that people liked it,” Melissa says. Soon after, opportunities outside NYCB started coming her way, among them commissions for the American Repertory Ballet and Choreographers On Pointe.
“It all started happening so fast, but it was sort of a mixed blessing,” Melissa says. “I was getting recognized more as a choreographer, even though I still felt I had a lot to offer as a dancer. It was a strange place to be.” After If by Chance, Melissa decided to step back from choreography for a time, and was soon earning soloist roles: Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, the Russian variation in Swan Lake and Arabian in The Nutcracker. By immersing herself in the repertoire, she was absorbing ideas for her own future works. “Watching the Robbins ballets in particular, and observing his genius, inspired me,” she explains. “I relate to how he combines seriousness with humor and I have a special love for his brand of playfulness.”
In spring 2007, Melissa left NYCB to join Los Angeles Ballet. “I wanted to try something new and grow as an artist,” she says. “I treasure my years at NYCB and all the wonderful experiences I had, but it was time to move on. LAB seemed like an exciting new company to be a part of.” In L.A., she began dancing principal roles in such Balanchine classics as “Rubies” in Jewels, Apollo and Concerto Barocco, and along with classes, rehearsals and performances, she’s researching ideas for a new ballet to be performed at LAB this spring.
Though she’s received a steady stream of choreographic opportunities and accolades (including the prestigious Choo-San Goh Award for Choreography in 2001), Melissa says she’s still finding her voice as a choreographer. “Ballet is my chosen medium for now, but I’m not limiting myself to that,” she says. “I plan to one day direct a Broadway musical, even if I have to write and pitch it myself.”
As for what’s next, Melissa wants to continue to expand her vocabulary as a dancer, taking extra classes in styles as diverse as lyrical jazz, funk and traditional Persian. “Right now I see choreography as a career I’m developing for the future, after I’ve stopped dancing,” she says. “The more I push myself as a dancer at this stage of my life, the more resources I end up with as a choreographer.”
Daniela Amini is a New York City–based freelance writer. She specializes in dance, opera, theater and local news.
Photo: Paul Kolnik