Prodigal Dancer

Photo: Kyle Froman

Like many girls who grow up to become ballerinas, Melissa Barak would make up mini ballets to perform for her friends and family. But unlike that of most ballerinas, her choreographic career didn’t end in the living room. When she was 18 years old and studying at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins noticed a piece she’d made for a student workshop. “I wasn’t chasing after [choreography], but for a first piece I knew it was good,” says Barak, 29. She went on to join City Ballet, where she danced in the corps, but Martins continued to push her offstage talents. In 2001, in front of a group of donors, he commissioned her to make a ballet for sab. He told Barak how Balanchine had done the same thing for him—“out of nowhere surprised him and gave him his big chance,” she remembers. “He said, ‘From Balanchine to me, from me to you.’ I was like, Wow.

Barak eventually left City Ballet, in 2007, moving to the comparatively fledgling Los Angeles Ballet, where she performs principal roles. “I wasn’t getting the parts I wanted,” she says of City Ballet. “I felt like if I didn’t do something exactly the same way they wanted me to, it made me look bad, or like a rebel.”

Martins doesn’t hold a grudge. Last year, he sent her a letter asking her to return, this time as choreographer of a major work for her alma mater. The result, A Simple Symphony, set to Benjamin Britten’s early masterpiece of the same name, will premiere on Tuesday at City Ballet. An abstract piece in four movements, its subtitles (“Boisterous Bourée,” “Sentimental Sarabande”) almost begged to be choreographed. “I wondered, ‘How can this not have been made into a ballet yet?’ ” says Barak, who describes hearing music “the way it should be danced.”

Barak had nine days to complete the ballet and rehearse her cast before returning to L.A. The deadline didn’t faze her, but then not much does. One of only a few women in a pack of largely boy-wonder ballet choreographers, she is already distinguishing herself as an individualist, bucking the current trend for excessively complex choreography. “I like that Melissa isn’t afraid to make a traditional ballet,” says Martins. While Barak “can definitely dig something that’s off the wall,” she’s opposed to innovation for the sake of it. “We’re straying from our foundation, the classical vocabulary,” she says. “My goal is to breathe fresh life into that.”

Prodigal Dancer