How L.A. Ballet's artistic director will make L.A. a force in the dance world

Pasadena, CA - August 17: Dancer and choreographer Melissa Barak has been announced as new artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet and is photographed inside their new home, the Pasadena, CA, Civic Auditorium, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Ballet in Los Angeles has been scarce in past years. Companies often lack dedicated studio space, and the limited companies that do exist are sprawled across Southern California, leasing out spaces here and there while struggling to find a centralized hub to call home. Lovers of the art form have taken a patchwork approach to finding new works from up-and-coming voices, often resorting to visiting companies from other cities like New York City and Chicago.

But with the recent openings of L.A. Dance Project, American Contemporary Ballet and Bodytraffic (alongside educational institutions such as USC Kaufman School of Dance), a new era of dance is blossoming in L.A. The Los Angeles Ballet is following suit. The institution, which launched its first season in 2006, is ushering in a new chapter. Led by recently appointed artistic director Melissa Barak, the company is helming a season with promising new work.

L.A. Ballet’s 2023-24 season marks Barak's first fully programmed year after she was named artistic director in August 2022. Barak's inaugural season injects the company's programming with a fresh perspective and introduces a rebrand for the institution.

The season, which kicks off Nov. 13, includes “Next Steps” — an evening performance with a variety of work, including choreography by Justin Peck, a U.S. premiere by Hans van Manen and a world premiere by Barak in collaboration with film and TV composer Kris Bowers (“Bridgerton,” “King Richard”) — and a double bill of Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” and George Balanchine’s “Serenade” next summer. The ballet tradition of “The Nutcracker” and “The Nutcracker Tea” continues for the company, with performances starting in December. LAB will also be featured in the 2024 Laguna Dance Festival.

LAB was founded in 2004 by former co-artistic directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. Barak is the first solo artistic director of the company and offers a distinct perspective as a former dancer of LAB and as an L.A. native.

Barak’s goal is to make L.A. a force in the dance world.

A woman sits in a theater.
LAB artistic director Melissa Barak is seated inside one of the institution's new performance spaces, the Pasadena Civic Center. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“I want people to see that LAB is on the road to establishing itself not only as L.A.’s major dance company but also becoming one of the country’s leading dance companies,” Barak said.

While other art forms in L.A. often have physical spaces to call home, dance is still laying its foundations in the city. Initiatives such as L.A. Dance Project began in 2012, yet the company didn't open its own theater space until 2017. Before then, it had been performing across the world without a central space to present work in the city.

As part of her vision, Barak is expanding the venues at which the company will perform. Looking to take the company across the city, LAB will perform at Pasadena Civic Center (a new addition to their roster starting this season), the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Royce Hall at UCLA, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center and Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

A woman leaning against the wall of a theater.
"I want people to see that LAB is on the road to establishing itself," says LAB artistic director Melissa Barak, "not only as L.A.'s major dance company but also becoming one of the country's leading dance companies." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Barak grew up in L.A., where she studied at Westside School of Ballet, the city’s oldest public ballet school. There, she found inspiration in Yvonne Mounsey, the founder of the school who was one of Balanchine’s original ballerinas at the New York City Ballet. For Barak, it then became “New York City Ballet or bust."

Barak went on to study at the School of American Ballet in New York for two years before being invited to join the company. She experienced “a huge period of growth ... as a dancer and also as a person,” during her time there.

After about nine years at the company, she ached for a change. Simultaneously, LAB was looking to grow. Mounsey, who, was an artistic advisor in the company’s creation, informed Barak of LAB’s inception. Barak returned home to join the then-new company in L.A. as a dancer in the very first season in 2006. Looking back, Barak saw the decision to join LAB then as the right choice. If she had stayed at NYCB, she says these types of roles she was pursuing would’ve been out of reach.

Following five years as a dancer at LAB, Barak launched her own company in 2013. “I started Barak Ballet because I felt like there was a world where I could help create a culture, an aesthetic and a sense of entertainment of what ballet could be,” she said.

The company became successful, performing at the Joyce Theater in New York, Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts and collaborating with the L.A. Phil. Building the company from the ground up was “grueling” for Barak, who took on many hats, including director of development, social media manager, scheduling and more. However, the work laid the foundation of skills that would prove beneficial in her new role as the artistic director of LAB.

A woman sitting in a chair and leaning into her hand.
LAB artistic director Melissa Barak has established a collaborative environment for the L.A. Ballet says Julia Rivera, the company's director of audience development. "It allows for a much deeper involvement, an intellectual and emotional involvement with staff," Rivera says. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“It taught me every aspect of running a company,” she said. “It also gave me confidence, frankly. I saw how the dancers responded to the way that I worked with them and the way that I led a rehearsal or a class.”

Barak Ballet was on the heels of its 10-year anniversary before she joined LAB. Initially on hold as Barak adjusted to LAB, Barak Ballet is now set to end its run.

The pandemic marked a time for LAB to pause and reflect on the company's trajectory. Board Chair Jennifer Bellah Maguire previously told The Times that the board decided to do a 360-degree review to reenvision the institution's goals and ambitions.

“There was a lot of change in the dance world in general during COVID,” Barak said. “LAB was part of that change. The work that I did through Barak Ballet was recognized and seen as something that might be a good direction to go.”

At the end of the 2022-23 LAB season, Barak premiered “Memoryhouse.” As the first full-length evening work by Barak as the company's artistic director, the abstract ballet centered on vignettes honoring those who died during the Holocaust. Initially slated for a 2020 premiere, it became a last-minute addition to the recent season that went up alongside the company’s other big production, “Lady of the Camellias.”

Read more: For the first time, Los Angeles Ballet will have one artistic director: Melissa Barak

Barak also marked the company’s new era with a complete rebrand, including a new logo and online presence designed by creative director Tyler King.

“In order to really have distinctive ownership over the artistic vision of the company, it would have to reflect that in all aspects, in particular, its face,” said Julia Rivera, director of audience development.

A woman leaning against the railing of the wall.
"Over the next few seasons," LAB artistic director Melissa Barak says, "people are going to really see that strong sense of a more established company, and a company that Angelenos can call their own." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In Rivera's estimation, Barak has established a collaborative environment for the company, asking thorough questions of all team members in an effort to understand what needs to happen to make the company run.

“That’s not common, and I think that that is her nature and is a comfortable place for her to be with her staff,” Rivera said. “It allows for a much deeper involvement, an intellectual and emotional involvement with staff.”

The 2023-24 season is the first step in LAB’s transformation to becoming a leading voice in ballet for the city, already bringing in popular artists like Peck and van Manen. As Barak pushes the boundaries of the ballet company, she hopes to make a mark that also welcomes new audiences into the fold.

“Over the next few seasons people are going to really see that strong sense of a more established company, and a company that Angelenos can call their own and feel a sense of pride and ownership,” she said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.