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Barak Ballet at the Broad Stage: New moves for a company on the verge

Barak Ballet at the Broad Stage: New moves for a company on the verge
Stephanie Kim dances "Desert Transport," part of the Barak Ballet program over the weekend at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. (Cheryl Mann / The Broad Stage)

Barak Ballet is about to go on tour, making milestone debuts in Manhattan and at the historic Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, so concerts in Santa Monica this weekend were a hometown sendoff for artistic director Melissa Barak and dancers.

The Broad Stage, where the company performed Friday and Saturday night, finally took the financial risk and officially presented this ambitiously creative chamber ballet troupe. In the past, Barak had to rent the theater.

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Ultimately, when the lights go down and the curtain goes up, it all comes down to the quality of the dancing and the artistry, and Barak continues up a path toward excellence.

The Los Angeles native opened the program with her latest piece, “Cypher,” an intriguing exploration of classical movement to an exotic recorded score by Molly Joyce. Using pulsing rhythms, Joyce combined piano, glockenspiel, cymbals and kick drum, to which Barak devised urgent and crisp movements, often contrasting thrusting legs with flowing and sculpted upper bodies.

Lauren Fadeley Veyette and Zachary Guthier. left, and Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe dance "Cypher," choreographed by Melissa Barak and premiered by Barak Ballet over the weekend at the Broad Stage.
Lauren Fadeley Veyette and Zachary Guthier. left, and Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe dance "Cypher," choreographed by Melissa Barak and premiered by Barak Ballet over the weekend at the Broad Stage. (Cheryl Mann / The Broad Stage)

The four women and two men threaded in and about one another, maintaining well-formed shapes and exacting unison. In group sections, the dancers used their bodies to weave complex patterns, which just as quickly dissolved, then reformed on different angles, one of Barak’s strengths as a choreographer.

Soloist Lauren Fadeley Veyette impressed with her long limbs and the strength to seemingly stop time while holding a balance. The third section featured a complex pas de deux for Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng, another gorgeous ballerina with a steely body. Twice the lights briefly flicked off and on mid-dance to create a mysterious, forced gap and new perspective. (Credit for the striking design to Nathan Scheuer.)

I would have voted for Barak to end “Cypher” at the conclusion of that intricate duet. Instead, she tacked on a brief fourth section and returned us to the circle and overhead spotlight where the ballet began. It’s a symmetrical structure she favors, but it feels too safe and pat, and it’s unnecessary.

Kudos to costume designer Holly Hynes for the luscious turquoise leotards and tights. As to the meaning of the title: That was up for grabs, as far as I was concerned. No matter how you wanted to interpret it, the ballet was a strong addition.

Sadie Black, Stephanie Kim, Julia Erickson and Hannah Wilcox in "Desert Transport," choreographed by Nicolas Blanc and premiered at the Broad Stage.
Sadie Black, Stephanie Kim, Julia Erickson and Hannah Wilcox in "Desert Transport," choreographed by Nicolas Blanc and premiered at the Broad Stage. (Cheryl Mann / The Broad Stage)

The night’s other premiere was “Desert Transport,” the second piece for Barak Ballet by Joffrey ballet master Nicolas Blanc. Beginning with a quartet for four women, all in flat ballet slippers, Blanc created the impression of a caravan, women linked together like goddesses or muses. They seemed to be scooping nourishment from the ground, bringing a hand to their lips.

Scheuer lighted the backdrop in washed-out orange and pink, enhancing the impression of some desert landscape. This sluggish atmosphere shifted abruptly with the entrance of four men. A horizontal white light cut across the back, and the dancing became compellingly fast. Mason Bates’ melodious score was likewise big and bold, with the tonal flavor of an adventurous matinee movie. Ruth Fentroy and Blanc clothed the dancers in handsome, bronze-hued costumes.

Toward the end, the dancers clumped together and switched into a slow-motion mass, shape-shifting across the stage, with Stephanie Kim pulling away for a solo of a deliberate viscous quality. Blanc painted striking images in this piece. But there was a choppiness too from one section to the next, and a lack of cohesion among the scenes that prevented a deeper impression.

The company ended with Barak’s “E/Space,” last year’s new work that knocked me out. With a clanging, beeping and clicking score by David Lawrence and digital designs featuring soaring planets and lined grids by media artist Refik Anadol, “E/Space” is a science-fiction ballet — minus the goofy creatures.

Truth be told, the second viewing Friday didn’t pack quite the punch it did last year. Still, the artists have done an amazing job of matching the natural linear quality and impetus of Barak’s style with Anadol’s geometric swirls, and the aural codes in Lawrence’s music added just the right atmosphere.

The ensemble includes dancers from companies around the country, all of them excellent. In “E/Space,” Julia Erickson and Jorge Villarini were standout partners, and Francisco Preciado was the springy, high-flying soloist.

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