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Review: Strong start to Melissa Barak's ballet troupe at Broad Stage

At “L.A. Moves,” Thursday’s inaugural concert of the eponymous Barak Ballet, the double lives of Melissa Barak were on display: both Barak the choreographer and Barak the dancer.

During the nine years Barak was at New York City Ballet she developed and matured in both spheres simultaneously, a difficult straddle. Happily, she’s taking the next step  — becoming Barak the artistic director — here in her hometown.

Barak’s choreography is complex and romantic; she plumbs the emotional nuance from human gesture to communicate directly and with resonance. Her work pulls from the ballet vocabulary alone; refreshingly, she eschews the mindless and frantic semaphore signaling that's become trendy in contemporary ballet.

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That’s probably because she doesn’t just derive inspiration from music, but weds the pulse of her pieces to the notes. It was certainly inspirational for the audience at the Broad Stage to have the Malibu Coast Chamber Orchestra playing for three of the four pieces on the program.

In “Lux Aeterna,” set to composer Maria Newman’s mournful score, Barak explored desire and loss among four couples. Following a unison introductory section, in which the dancers had some troubles with spacing and clarity, a series of duos riffed on the musical themes and their varying tones. Lighthearted game-playing accompanied a bright allegro.

In another part, a woman swung her arms, appearing to “lift” her partner, who jumped skyward. At the end, the men’s extended arms seemed to cut an invisible string that tied them to their female partners, who fell weightlessly to the ground as the men exited.

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In a premiere, “For Two,” to a lovely piano piece by Mario Grigorov, Barak gave us joyful lifts and sensuous holds, as well as telling details — a repeated kick forward then back — to express giddy love. Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe danced for each other, both of them endearing and spontaneous.

In the night’s other new work, “Loose Gravel,” Ate9 director Danielle Agami created a special solo for Barak, challenging her by specifically hindering the ballet dancer’s natural qualities — her lightness and fleetness.

Barak was confined to the floor to roll, crawl and shape space only with body and arms. This experiment only partially succeeded. Barak executed the moves with an exactitude, but with what felt like half-hearted commitment. Who was this woman? What was her trouble? Jodie Landau’s minimalist, harmonic score suggested a disturbing undercurrent, but the picture was left without colors

The evening ended with a flawless performance of Pascal Rioult’s disturbing and expressive “Wien,” which provoked giggles at first from the audience. No, this was serious stuff. In this signature work, Rioult masterfully used Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse” to create a swirling, circling-upon-itself mad waltz that is a metaphor for a human cruelty that bubbles up from beneath a staid surface. The six dancers made lightning shifts between precision spinning and terrified poses. It was a provocative ending for what was a strong beginning for Barak Ballet. 

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