I think Melissa Barak is one of our most talented and skillful ballet choreographers, one of the increasingly rare dance-makers who still believes in classical dance as a medium of artistry.
I also find that the qualities that attract me to her work—its orderliness, romance, effortless flow, and her insightful use of the ballet vocabulary, plus women in pointe shoes—can sometimes turn into a piece’s liabilities. The orderliness occasionally looks like an academic exercise. Clever and complex phrases of steps overwhelm her dancers, particularly in their efforts to stay in together. Music is her inspiration, and I applaud her ear and ability to translate aural colors, melody and rhythm into movement. I would also like to feel and see her kindle the passions and attributes of her own dancers more often.
But we can’t forget this is a young company, not even two years old; only three of the 14 dancers have been with Barak Ballet for more than a year. So this is all my way of saying that though not every piece on the company’s concert at the Broad Stage this weekend (Feb. 6 and 7) was delightful, the fledgling troupe is an exciting presence for Los Angeles.
Barak presented two ballets new to local audiences and my favorite was the evening’s closer, “Middle of Somewhere,” a piece for four couples that was originally created for Sacramento Ballet. It opened with flurries of activity followed by sudden stasis, echoing the recorded music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso, which raced along and then stopped. A couple circled the stage, exited and then was replaced by a new one, all with crisp directional shifts. A central duet for Jennifer Drake and the expressive Mauro Villanueva suggested the simultaneous push and pull of a relationship straining under stress. The final section was even faster with big jumps and sparkling energy, the dancers better able to stay in unison than earlier in the evening. “Middle of Somewhere” gives us fresh and carefree play.
“Yueh Fei,” on the other hand, looked dated, and uncomfortably quaint in its attempts to convey a Chinese affect. The ballet takes its cues from a contemporary composition of the same name by composer Huang Ruo. The music combines Western and Asian musical traditions with a mix of strings and percussion, melody, tricky rhythms, and dissonance. Barak tried a similar melding—flexed feet, bent knees, upturned hands, and the S-shaped body of Indian dance. But in this instance, the phrases Barak has chosen looked stiff and pasted onto the music, rather than an organic outgrowth of it. Monique L’Heureux’s speckled lighting added interest and mystery.
The dancers were divided into a trio, two couples and leading duo, but all the dancers seemed to struggle with the steps and they were placed awkwardly about the stage, which is unusual for Barak. At the very end, Villanueva, a kind of god in shimmering gold tunic, stepped forward, raised a hand and then dramatically clenched his fist. With a sweeping arm, he threw down whatever it was he had “caught,” and with that simple gesture piqued my interest in some suggested magical ritual. The dancers spiraled outward from a clump, crouched in a circle surrounding Villanueva, and the piece was over, ending just at the spot where I became interested.
Barak invited Nicolo Fonte, the choreographer in residence at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, to stage his 2003 piece “Left Unsaid” for her dancers. Set to a piece (unidentified) by J.S. Bach, “Left Unsaid” was a satisfying counterpoint to Barak’s lighter style. Fonte has a sensual, stretched vocabulary, with the dancers’ lower bodies grounded into the stage. Three men, in black sport coats and trousers, danced with acute longing with a shifting trio of women, clad in sophisticated whitish-blue leotards (the handsome costumes by Kathy Scoggins).
The highlight was a duet for the passionate David Kim and fearless Sadie Black. The two moved progressively closer together on a diagonal, while Jesse Campbell and Evan Swenson circled them slowly, almost ominously. Black folding chairs were the not-very-original prop pieces, but I didn’t mind so much because I was so taken with the intensity of the dancing. Another nice work for the Barak repertory.