On a stormy Sunday inside a Fairfax-Pico dance studio, Barak Marshall steps in time and claps his hands for the 10-member BodyTraffic ensemble he's rehearsing.
"It's Elvis to the side," the choreographer calls out between counts, doing a hip-switch back and forth to illustrate.
The stocky rehearsal leader with long black curly locks, garbed in sneakers, fatigues and T-shirt, races back and forth across the studio floor, stopping to explain a point here or there.
"Now let's have some vocalizations. And it's Jesus here" — he gestures, like a crucifix — "and next come the mortars. So we drop — thud — to the ground."
This is a surprisingly strong image for someone who calls himself "an accidental dancer," a 42-year-old Harvard grad, native Angeleno, mixed-heritage son of a tall, fair Jewish businessman from the Bronx and a small, dark Yemenite-Israeli, the former star of Inbal Dance Theater.
But Barak (without a "c") Marshall was virtually born in a trunk. He remembers falling asleep as a child right on the stage of UCLA's Royce Hall as his mother, Margalit Oved, rehearsed for Inbal performances.
Now, with his own practice session over, Marshall pulls up a folding chair, sips water from a paper cup, and talks animatedly about his dance-theater piece "Monger," which has won him major prizes and plaudits around the world and will be performed by his own Israeli troupe, Barak Marshall Dance Theatre, on the Royce stage Friday and Saturday.
So how did it happen, this leap to the spotlight?
"Well, the last thing I ever wanted to do was become a dancer," he says, musing over his history and the touring hardship he saw in his mother's days onstage. "I'd thought of law, or a music career." His singing began in junior high, carried through to the Harvard Choir, then fed him as a busker on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., and Jerusalem, and also earned the tenor a concert performance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who said, "You can tune an orchestra to Barak Marshall's voice."
As for the law, well, his father "had an old-world view" and may have wished a legal life for him but now is supremely proud of his son's talents and accomplishments. "My dad cried twice in his life: once at my sister's wedding and at the premiere of my piece 'Rooster' at the Tel Aviv opera house."
So with all the exposure to his mother's starry aura, Marshall was able to steadfastly resist the legal path. After college he handled her affairs, her bookings, etc., and accompanied her back to Israel in 1994, where she assumed Inbal's directorship for a two-year stint. Shortly after they arrived, however, his beloved aunt died suddenly at age 68 there in Tel Aviv.
"I suffered umbilical whiplash," he recalls. In his grief, he hung around in one of the Inbal studios, "blasted music and stamped out some movements, trying to remember her, but getting sucked into the heritage and offering my memento mori to her."
A company member, who secretly watched him from the sidelines several days running, finally made an unsolicited declaration: "This is worthy choreography. Let me help you put it together."
The "it" became a piece titled "Aunt Leah." He was launched. Whether Marshall knew it or not, his mother's influence had unmistakably taken hold.
But his way reflects a different emphasis than hers — it's theatricality with a social conscience rather than with Inbal's more ethnic representations. "Monger," for instance, draws on Jean Genet's "The Maids" and Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," both of which deal with the upstairs-downstairs, servant-master class struggle. It also combines trace elements from around the multicultural globe — Far Eastern, Mediterranean, North African, Israeli, Palestinian. And the sound score is a pastiche of Verdi opera, Balkan beat box, Handel, Jimmy Dorsey swing band, Gypsy music, Frank Sinatra.
"It's the net outcome of my Ashkenazi [European Jewish] father and my Mizrahi [Arabic-speaking Jewish] mother," he says.
What's more, he did not even stop for the usual training that dancers-turned-choreographers can vouchsafe. "I never took a dance class," Marshall confesses. "Back then, I didn't know an attitude from a tendu," ballet positions that every professional seeks to perfect.
Somehow, it all seemed to unfold. With his small bundle of works, he entered prestigious European choreography competitions and kept winning. The prizes opened doors to commissions and in 1999 Marshall was named first house-choreographer of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company.
"Barak was one of those who came around the corner just when there didn't seem to be anyone of interest," says Samuel Wuersten, artistic director of the Holland Dance Festival in The Hague. "He's an original. 'Monger,' which he's bringing to us, is funny and thoughtful. It has high energy, also a deep message, even poignancy."
But the good fortune of his beginning career didn't last. In 2000, while running across a street to escape a speeding car, Marshall broke his leg. It was serious, involved surgery and took two years to recover, which brought him back to Los Angeles.
"For eight years I was on hiatus," he says. "Much of that time I spent knocking on doors, trying to get grants and be hired as a choreographer." That was when he waited tables, tutored high school kids and taught college classes, which he does now, except for the tables, to support himself.
The irony of this, he says, is that "we're treading water with money, even though we're appearing at top centers." Ultimately, he wants to establish the same company here, Barak Marshall Dance Theatre, that he had in Israel until his accident. "What I wish for is an angel who could say, 'Here, kid, let me support your work!'"
Meanwhile, he continues to rack up an international reputation and has a big New York showcase scheduled for next season. Three months ago, audiences at the Joyce Foundation's "A.W.A.R.D. Show" at REDCAT voted his work with BodyTraffic first prize (and $10,000). He's got ground-breaking, border-crossing works such as "Aunt Leah," which his company was invited to perform back in 1995 at "a very left-wing center" in Milan, Italy, not long after the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The audience was in kaffiyehs and chanting, 'Intifada, intifada.' But the piece has some text in Arabic, which I sang and when my mother ululated they all quieted down and starting smiling at its humorous parts. At the end, they gave us a standing ovation.
"You know, we're all mongers of one sort or another. Whatever we're selling — fish or gossip or war or peace — it's the imperative of determining our own future that seizes us. That's why I make works that tell a story. It's my way of mongering."