Melissa Barak Shares Her Plans for Los Angeles Ballet
On August 24, the board of Los Angeles Ballet announced Melissa Barak as its new artistic director. The California native, who has led her own Los Angeles–based company, Barak Ballet, since 2013, has been praised for her choreographic talent and artistic voice and is no stranger to the diverse creative community in Los Angeles. She succeeds founding co-artistic directors Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen, who departed Los Angeles Ballet this summer.
Barak began her ballet training at Santa Monica’s Westside School of Ballet, under the direction of Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire, before moving to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet. After graduating, she joined New York City Ballet, where then ballet master in chief Peter Martins gave her choreographic opportunities for both SAB and the company. She joined Los Angeles Ballet in 2006 as a dancer before launching Barak Ballet, which is now on hold as she heads into her new position.
I recently spoke with Barak about her plans for the company. (Although we have both previously danced with Los Angeles Ballet, we have never worked together.) Below, she shares how she is adjusting to her new position and her vision for the company’s future.
How has your transition to artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet been so far?
The dancers return to the studio on September 19, so right now I’m just getting to know the staff and preparing for the upcoming season. Everybody is lovely to work with and really excited about this new chapter—I’m having a good time so far!
As a former company member, how does it feel to return to lead this company?
As a dancer, you only have so much input, but as a director, you can really steer an organization into any direction, so it’s exciting. L.A. deserves a world-renowned company, so I am very excited that I have been asked to take the reins and lead us there. I was a part of the very first rep program the company did, so it’s quite full circle!
Los Angeles Ballet’s repertoire featured classical works and Balanchine repertoire in the past. How do you see the rep changing under your direction?
This season [which was programmed by previous co-directors Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen] is more of a transition year for me. But moving forward, I would like to expand the repertoire. I want us to do everything from experimental work to some story ballets or reimagined classics. There are certain neoclassical choreographers I would like to bring in. As far as Balanchine, I am certainly a fan; I don’t see the repertoire being as heavily Balanchine as it has been, but certainly some of his ballets will be presented. I’m looking to make a well-rounded repertoire, and hopefully that will attract not just strong dancers but really invested artists.
How are you feeling about getting to know a new group of dancers and staff?
It’s a challenge for any director to step in with a group of dancers you don’t know. I didn’t get to hire any of them, but I am certainly looking forward to meeting everyone. I had them send me some videos of their dancing to help me get to know them and how they work. Once we get back into the studio it will be easier to get to know them. I had a wonderful dynamic with my dancers at Barak Ballet, and I’m sure we will get there again with the dancers at L.A. Ballet. They seem excited and inspired by some new energy, and they all seem to really want to work.
What’s so exciting to me is that this company is primed to take off—it has a strong financial foundation, a strong working staff and really motivated people behind it. The potential for growth is very inspiring.
According to Data Dance Project, Los Angeles Ballet is one of the largest 50 companies in the U.S. Are there any specific opportunities or challenges stepping into this role as a female artistic director?
When I was first choreographing at NYCB, I would get asked this question all the time, and I was very confused—why would I ever think I couldn’t make it? Just because I’m a woman? Of course I could make it. There was never a doubt in my mind. Peter [Martins] saw a person with choreographic abilities and talent, and that’s why he gave me so many incredible opportunities. I’ve had my share of failures, but I never gave up. I’m looking forward to building this company step by step—every day, every relationship and every opportunity that comes our way are little building blocks to a higher goal. One challenge is that people want things to change [under a new director] right away. I see this as something I want to build and commit to for the long haul.
Do you see ways to expand the company’s reach in Los Angeles’ creative community?
Of course—I’m looking at partnering and collaborating with various local artists and institutions. There are so many creatives here, so many cool spaces, so many artistic and creative possibilities. We want to tap into everything. I would like to see us get beyond the proscenium stage into various venues and platforms.
The possibilities in every creative medium are endless. Films, video, virtual reality—I love bouncing ideas off of other people, and I already have a lot that I want to implement. L.A. Ballet’s staff members have wonderful ideas, and I already have people reaching out to me with ways in which we can work together. I have to see what will work for us, but it’s thrilling to think outside the box and figure out where we should go. L.A. has such a wide audience, but I want there to be something for everybody to enjoy.