Melissa Barak (photo by Joshua Spencer) was in her late teens, early 20s, dancing in the New York City Ballet corps de ballet, when Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins saw some of the choreography she was working on, and began nurturing her talent. He invited her to participate in the first NY Choreographic Institute and then commissioned her to create a piece for the students at the School of American Ballet. That piece, Telemann Overture Suite, was an audience favorite and a critical success. The next season it was added to the repertory of the New York City Ballet. Martins eventually commissioned three more ballets from Melissa, a boon for any young choreographer, and for a woman especially. She has also made pieces for Sacramento Ballet, American Repertory Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet, where she also danced for several seasons.
But it’s the last piece that Melissa made for NYCB, Call Me Ben (2010), that I asked her to talk about. Call Me Ben, to music by Jay Greenberg, was unusual for several reasons: it was about the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and it included dialogue for the dancers. Unlike her other pieces, this one was not well-received by critics. Some of the reviews were harsh. (I wrote a feature story for the Los Angeles Times while Melissa was creating Call Me Ben, but I never got to see the ballet.) I asked Melissa if she might be willing to talk about what it’s like when your work receives a drubbing and what impact it had on her. Her comments are below.
Melissa, who grew up in LA and studied with Yvonne Mounsey at Westside Ballet, is one of four choreographers currently participating in the National Choreographers Initiative at UCI. An informal, workshop showing of their pieces takes place 8 p.m., Saturday, July 28 at Irvine Barclay Theatre. You can read my story about that here.
You had great popular and critical acclaim for your choreography early on. Call Me Ben, however, did not get great reviews, and I’m wondering if that was upsetting for you? Do you normally read the reviews of your work? What did you think of the comments?
I do read reviews of my work. Reading some of the reviews for Call Me Ben was mostly frustrating rather than hurtful. Many people don’t realize that I was given (by director Peter Martins) the score of music to use, and I knew from the beginning it wasn’t music that I felt something for. But instead of giving up and passing on the opportunity I decided to go against my instincts and take a chance. Before a single review came out, I knew it was going to be a ballet that the critics were going to have a field day with.
If the criticism bothered you, how did you go forward from there?
I just decided that at the end of the day I tried something new, something different, something risky, and I had to be proud of that. The music itself didn’t inspire me whatsoever; it was the story of Bugsy Seigel that at least conjured up creative thought in my head. I felt I did all I could with that particular piece of music. I’m not the type of choreographer that can create without music. Music is my guide, and in this case I was trying to create out of a whole different process.
Do you think the reviews have had any impact on your receiving or being considered for other commissions? Has it been harder to get work?
That’s hard to say…. possibly? I know companies are very strapped for money these days and they may not want to take a chance on a choreographer that they feel uncertain about. That goes back to the frustrating part about the reviews I received – Call Me Ben wasn’t a clear example of who I am as a choreographer.
What did you think of Call Me Ben? Are there things about it you would change?
I actually thought there were a lot of good ideas in the ballet. Perhaps a stage at Lincoln Center wasn’t the right venue for something that risky, but I was very proud of the dancers that got up there who spoke and acted. I think we all stepped way out of our comfort zone for that one, and I do know some people who quite liked it. I actually believe the story of Bugsy is perfect for the stage, and perhaps its something I would explore at some later time, but next time to very different music!