Review: The Los Angeles Ballet Steps Out With Barak’s MemoryHouse
July 5, 2023
Memoryhouse, Melissa Barak's first full evening length ballet, choreographed to the 2002 Max Richter album of the same name, was performed at Broadstage in Santa Monica for three nights, June 15-17, 2023, as the concluding pieces of Barak's first season as Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Ballet.
Memoryhouse is a work whose subject is the Holocaust – however, it is not a narrative account of any one person's experience, nor does it try to render specific occurrences, rather it is a work that uses a series of vignettes (or scenes or movements) to convey a spectrum of Jewish experience during the Holocaust.
In my conversations with Barak, both while in rehearsal, and then on stage following the Friday night performance, she shared some of her inspiration and process regarding Memoryhouse.
She first heard the Max Richter album years ago, and it stayed with her. "It's so beautiful. It's very haunting. It's very dramatic," Barak said. "I don't remember exactly what I was doing or when it occurred to me what the ballet should be about, but as soon as that thought [that the subject would be the Holocaust] came into my head, it was like: Oh my God, this section sounds like a train… another section is very atmospheric [and] it sounds like people in hiding, like hiding beneath shadows and like flickers of light…."
I asked Barak why the Holocaust? "I was always very interested in the subject," Barak said. Barak, who is Jewish, added that, although her own family arrived in the United States in the 1920s, escaping from persecution in Russia, none of her direct family were murdered in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the subject has always captivated her. "Throughout my twenties and thirties," she told me, "I went to Auschwitz. I have been to Berlin... I went to Sachsenhausen. I went to Dachau when I went to Munich. I've been to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. I've been to Hungary. I always made it a point to [visit] museums and camps. I went to the [US] Holocaust Museum in DC very soon after it opened. It's just a subject that I've always been very interested in."
So, how did this become a ballet? Barak explained: "Once I've taken everything I know, and I've learned and just surrounded myself [with] the stories... the sights, the feelings, the emotions. Then, [Richter's] music is such a guide… I knew what each movement represented in terms of what scene we're talking about. Then it was just a matter of exploring movement that expressed that time and place."
Memoryhouse is compelling and innovative in its mix of traditional, modern, and abstract modes of dance as well as in its use of scrims and projections created by Sebastian Pescheira, and a flexible stage-set created with architect Hagy Belzberg (who is also the architect of Holocaust Museum LA).
The projections are integral to Memoryhouse, at times looking like musical notes or Hebrew letters that fall and become rain-like slashes; and, at other times, morphing into birds that take flight; and significantly, at one moment of intensity, the rain of slashes convey the rain of ash in the sky from the incineration of the bodies of the murdered.
Spoken word poetry is used in each of the ballet’s two acts – in the first act a poem is recited in Russian by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva herself (there is no translation just the voice, that to me conjured the life of Russian Jews during the Holocaust, at Stalingrad and during the famine siege of St. Petersburg). In the second act, John Cage speaks words in an affectless tone that, to me, spoke to the non-sensical zombie world of the Nazis' factories of death.
The dancers stand at times behind the scrim, which can look like a hazy screen with rectangular cut outs. At moments, it creates distance from the audience – as if they are not just in a different time but on a different planet, be it in the ghetto, or on the trains, or in the camps. It's very arresting and conveys the various moods of alienation, aloneness, danger, and even adds a level of ominous foreboding.
Although the ballet is abstract, the human mind is always striving to find meaning and impose a narrative. In the first half of the ballet as the scenes build, one after another, I imagined the families that existed before the war, their lives in the ghettos, their transport on the trains, and in the death camps themselves- it was an emotional experience. The dramatic first act break left the audience breathless.
Memoryhouse signals a dazzling creative accomplishment for Barak, in what has already been an accomplished career.
Barak is an LA native who attended Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences from seventh to 11th Grade, while training at Westside Ballet. At a young age, Barak's mother took her to the ballet and put her in ballet classes. Even then, Barak says, "I saw myself both as a dancer performing, and I also was constantly creating ballets in my head."
Barak spent two years in the School of American Ballet, before being accepted in 1998 into New York City Ballet (NYCB), the house that Balanchine built. Mr. B. had passed away in 1983 but under the leadership of Peter Martins, the ballet masters were still Balanchine trained, and some of the Balanchine ballerinas such as Merrill Ashley were still working with the company.
It was a "very high standard," Barak says of NYCB. "The athleticism and the artistry that was expected of you…. You had to dance fast, move fast, move with grace and precision… A lot was expected of us every day."
Ats 18, Barak was part of part of the inaugural class of Peter Martin's choreography workshop. Martins was impressed and "had his eye on her for other choreographic opportunities." So, when the Choreographic Institute began in 2000, she was invited to do a new piece. In 2006, Barak joined Los Angeles Ballet as a dancer, and in 2013 she launched her own company, Barak Ballet. In 2022, she was appointed Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Ballet.
Barak's deep understanding of being a dancer informs her role as Artistic Director. "For me as a director, it's important to stay true to who I am," Barak told me. "I like talent. My focus is to find dancers who, when they dance, it's full energy, full passion, full dedication… who bring that athleticism and artistry to the mix. Musicality is important to me [as is] a work ethic... It's fun to guide a dancer to their full potential."
Memoryhouse features dancers from Barak Ballet and from Los Angeles Ballet. In some scenes the dancers are in flat shoes, in others in ballet slippers. The mix of movement-styles is Barak's choreographic signature along with a specific emphasis and how the dancers use their arms, at times raised and at times to signal how a duet or group will move as they push, pull, lead, and follow each other.
Memoryhouse had specific details that conjured, for me, scenes from the works of Holocaust survivors Imre Kertesz and Primo Levi. In one movement, the dancers move in a group shoulder to shoulder, their heads rolling. This movement reminded me of Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Kertesz's autobiographical novel, Fateless, in which a 14-year-old boy in Auschwitz describes the way the Nazis weaponized boredom, making the inmates stand for countless hours in roll calls, their heads nodding as they tried to stay awake. In a similar fashion, there were several scenes where the dancers were wearing neutral garments made me think of the ruthless depersonalization Levi described in "The Grey Zone" of The Drowned and the Saved.
The second act opens in a burst of color with dancers who could be meeting in a bar or cabaret. At first, I thought this might be a pre-war flashback, or a vignette of life lived under false papers. The scenes that follow are different moments of resistance, survival, loss and death. The second act does not land as powerfully as the first and ends abruptly. Maybe that is intentional – perhaps Barak is making us feel the violence of the lives that were interrupted or maybe Barak is expressing the truth that although the War ended, for many the effects of the Holocaust didn’t. Memoryhouse is an emotional, visual, and movement-led journey, an experience that I hope will be performed and seen by many for years to come.
Memoryhouse is significant not only because of its subject matter but also because of what it represents in terms of Barak's vision for the Los Angeles Ballet.
In my conversation with Barak, we discussed both how she hopes to make the Los Angeles Ballet stand out, and how to make Los Angeles as much a home for dance as it has been for film, TV, and more recently the visual arts.
At the base level, Dance in Los Angeles needs to foster a better infrastructure for dancers and companies to thrive. Greater financial and philanthropic support is certainly a top priority. This production of Memoryhouse was made possible by the support of The David and Janet Polak Foundation but more funders and sponsors are needed. On a more nuts and bolts level. The Los Angeles Ballet would benefit from having a permanent place of residency for the company’s performances, as well as a real home for ballet companies. Los Angeles has no real Disney Hall for dance, or dedicated dance performance space like The Joyce Theater in New York.
Barak feels that to stand out, the Los Angeles Ballet will need to take risks and make bold choices regarding new work. It is a formula that over the last two decades has made the LA Phil the premier orchestra for new work, and that has drawn critics, artists, as well audience and supporters to Los Angeles. Barak has a vision for Los Angeles Ballet that will mix the new with the classic and that will focus on the dancers. However, without audience attendance and individual, corporate, and philanthropic support, Barak and all other dance companies in Los Angeles cannot succeed. All those who care about dance and want LA dance to thrive for the next generation, need to show up, however they can.
The power and artistry of Barak’s Memoryhouse reminds us, as Balanchine said, "Dance is important and significant – yes. But first of all, it is a pleasure."