At Los Angeles Ballet, Melissa Barak’s Memoryhouse Aims to Remember the Holocaust

June 13, 2023

Melissa Barak’s Memoryhouse is a ballet that begins and ends with its music. Set to the album of the same name from German composer Max Richter, Barak’s evening-length ballet first started with a listening session.

“I remember visualizing a lone woman on the floor in the rain to the ‘November’ track,” Barak tells Pointe. “November” is the ninth of 18 tracks on Richter’s album, first released in 2002, each of which Barak uses for a vignette in her work. Richter’s composition originally focused on a mosaic of 20th-century European history; Barak’s Memoryhouse narrows this to the Holocaust.

The ballet concludes Los Angeles Ballet’s 2022–23 season, Barak’s first as the company’s artistic director. LAB will present Memoryhouse June 15 to 17 at BroadStage in Santa Monica.

Melissa Barak leads a rehearsal at Los Angeles Ballet in a large studio with wood beams on the ceiling. She demonstrates a low developpe side.
Melissa Barak leading a rehearsal at Los Angeles Ballet. Photo by Alex Darouie, courtesy LAB.

“There was something very sad and isolating in [the lone woman’s] appearance,” Barak continues, describing her initial visualization. Several tracks from the record feature rain sounds, along with spoken-word recordings and a mixture of orchestral and electronic sounds.

“I don’t know the exact point in which it clicked for me that the entire album created a vehicle for expressing stories from the Holocaust,” Barak says, but the idea stuck with her for many years. She adds that she has always been interested in that period of world history: “I have traveled to camps and visited many museums, both in the U.S. and throughout Europe,” she says. 

Memoryhouse began as a project for her previous company, Barak Ballet, which she founded and formerly directed. The ballet, originally set to premiere at The Broad in 2020, was delayed by the pandemic. It was then slated for its world premiere during BroadStage’s 2022–23 season prior to Barak’s hiring at LAB. The premiere is now a joint production, featuring a selection of LAB dancers alongside Barak Ballet guest artists. 

“This is an exciting time for Los Angeles Ballet,” says LAB soloist Laura Chachich, now in her ninth season with the company. “Los Angeles as a city deserves a large and diverse ballet company that reflects the city,” Chachich continues. “I think it’s really exciting to see Melissa now in this position of leadership, and she’s really committed to growing the company and performing new works.”

Though this month will be the work’s premiere, LAB performed excerpts in October 2022 for a presentation with AKLA, a technology, medicine, arts, and security-based educational program for Jewish teens.

The Holocaust is a heavy subject. At each stage of preparation, Barak encouraged her dancers to keep the movement simple and real, not performative or overly dramatized. “I make it clear to the dancers that they not express any sadness or pain in their performance,” she says. “That is something for the audience to experience, or not. The dancer’s job is to simply embody the music, time, and place through the choreography.”

Chachich is one of 14 dancers cast in Memoryhouse. Her role, like the rest, moves across multiple vignettes, part of Barak’s effort to achieve a tessellation of memory, movement, and emotion.

In one vignette, “Maria, The Poet,” Chachich stands in a pool of light, which represents a window. Chachich stands at the brink of the window, which she says represents the navigation of an uncertain future.

Barak employed stage design to match the abstraction in Richter’s score. “I really wanted Memoryhouse to feel like lost stories floating in the ether,” she says. The effect, she hopes, will honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish lives lost, many of whose personal stories will never be known.

“I do believe that this feels like the right time to present this work,” Barak says. “We will soon have no more eyewitnesses to these events. I hope that through my research and travels, this piece will continue the conversation in some way.”