Melissa Barak talks about Shostakovich the way most 22-year-olds describe Ja Rule. “Amazing, gorgeous, dramatic, very soulful,” she gushes one evening in a cafeteria at Lincoln Center, her eyes lighting up.
A corps dancer with New York City Ballet, Barak begins her day at 10:30 a.m. with company class. She’s spent the last seven hours dancing—learning and rehearsing repertory for the company’s spring season (which opens April 30 at the New York State Theater). “I am so tired,” she admits. “My brain is killing me.”
Right now Barak is both performing and choreographing for NYCB. Her piece, set to Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, has been commissioned by the company’s Diamond Project. In ballet, that’s like being chosen for the all-star game.
Underwritten by the Irene Diamond Fund and the Geoffrey C. Hughes Foundation, the Project, now in its 10th year, supplies a handful of choreographers with the money, bodies, and studio time needed to make their dreams come true. Previous participants read like a who’s who of ballet: William Forsythe, Ulysses Dove, Christopher Wheeldon, Kevin O’Day. Each of these choreographers’ works will be revived this season. Barak, one of the few females and the youngest participant in the project’s history, seems confident about showing her ballet alongside dances by these established artists and company directors.
She has laid-back, Californian roots. “I started ballet when I was four or five. Then quit for a year, then went back when I was six,” she says, rearranging the barrette that’s holding her ponytail-twist. “My mom always saw me dancing around the house. She took dance when she was younger, but never went professional. In her eyes, I was this talent that had to be shown to the world. She ran around L.A. trying to find me the right studio.” Barak wound up at Yvonne Mounsey’s Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, where the seeds of her dance making sprouted: “I would listen to classical music when I was eight, nine, 10 years old. I always thought of the same ballets to the pieces of music: steps and little villagers and, like, a male and female dancer. I only knew Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty.”
Barak believes her early training enabled her to think independently, and ultimately to choreograph. “We were allowed to be who we were,” she says. “The music they played in class was so great. It was the right atmosphere to grow as an artist.” In 1996, she moved to New York to attend the School of American Ballet, the training ground for NYCB. Seeing a sign announcing a choreographic workshop, Barak decided to apply.
“It was weird,” she recalls. “I saw it and was thinking, ‘Oh, I always choreograph in my head. I’ve thought of a lot of ballets,’ but probably never would have thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think I want to try choreographing.’ It was just sort of there.”
She applied and was accepted. “I heard that they randomly picked six [applicants]. If that’s the case, then it was luck of the draw that my name got chosen.” Amazingly lucky for Barak: Her piece caught the attention of NYCB’s artistic director, Peter Martins. In 1998 she graduated from SAB, entered NYCB, and told Martins she was still interested in choreography. Last year he let her work with the SAB students, for whom she made Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, a neoclassical, music-inspired ballet. Telemann is now in NYCB’s repertory; Robert Greskovic of The Wall Street Journal calls it “simple and yet sweetly stirring.”
Barak’s new choreography for the Diamond Project, she says, describes a “forbidden love.” Is it autobiographical? “No, I mean, nobody’s forbidding me to, like, go for that guy that I’m currently crushing for.”
On top of her salary as a company dancer, she’s receiving a commission fee plus the support of NYCB. “That’s what’s so amazing! I have New York City Ballet—their dancers, studios, costume designers, lighting designers, that stage. No choreographer starting out gets to use NYCB as their apparatus. It’s unbelievable that Peter has given me such a gift. Any aspiring choreographer would kill to, like, work with the best.” V
Barak’s new ballet premieres June 4 and repeats June 9 and 12 at the New York State Theater; call 870-5570 for information.