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Naughty & Nice

Melissa Barak, the newest leading dancer of the Los Angeles Ballet, sashays into town with 'The Nutcracker' and--what else--a very Hollywood burlesque act.

December 09, 2007|Elizabeth Khuri | Elizabeth Khuri is assistant style editor of the magazine. Contact her at

L.A.'s dance world, long in need of a marquee-name ballerina, has a new headliner: Melissa Barak. The West Hollywood native, who spent more than nine years with the New York City Ballet, is now bringing her dynamic style to the year-old Los Angeles Ballet as a principal performer and choreographer. "Being able to hopefully influence dance in this city, it's definitely cool," she says. "It's a completely different experience dancing with City Ballet to dancing with something so brand-new. I had a blast there, but I felt like if I was going to move forward, I needed to establish myself somewhere else." So in March, Barak, 28, ditched her Manhattan digs and leased a Beverly Hills apartment, leaving the epicenter of American dance to be a player in an up-and-coming scene. In addition to her LAB duties, she's taking on freelance choreography assignments, the most eyebrow-raising of which is a sexy number for night at the King King club in Hollywood. Here, we follow Barak through her two disparate dance worlds.



On a recent Thursday evening, Barak is backstage at King King, which emanates a faint stench of beer. She puts on a slinky halter dress, thigh-high fishnets and yellow rubber gloves to protect her hands as she laces up her point shoes--spray-painted black. Her dance partners, Aubrey Morgan and Megan Pepin (friends and former colleagues from New York), are also getting dressed as a zaftig woman next to them pulls out a knife. "I'm doing a switchblade act," the woman says. "Cool!" the trio respond.

"This is going to feel so unlike me," Barak says. "I've never done something like this before." As "Get Up" by James Brown plays in the background, the dancers take their places onstage. The lights turn hot, spotlighting them on high stools, backs to the audience. Their music begins. They light cigarettes, swirl fake martinis and spin around to face the crowd. Barak soon launches into her solo to the beat of a snare drum, dashing from corner to corner and flicking her heels upward, all points and domination.

The piece is a far cry from those Barak began creating nearly a decade ago. While attending the School of American Ballet, the resident academy of the New York City Ballet, she earned a coveted spot in artistic director Peter Martins' choreography workshop for students. "When my mom used to drive me to school in L.A., listening to classical music in the car, I would choreograph in my head," says the Crossroads alumnus of her dance-making ambitions.

Martins ended up commissioning several pieces from Barak, even asking her to devise skits for company fundraisers. "What I like about Melissa's choreography is that she likes ballet," Martins says. "She believes in the classical ballet technique and has the ability to use that vocabulary."

This ability also helps her make "a fairly good living" in L.A., even though, as Barak says, it's a challenge for ballet to be accepted here by audiences who might be more accustomed to hip-hop or salsa dancing. Nevertheless, her work schedule is filling up--from teaching classes at Westside Ballet school to training workout bunnies to choreographing routines as diverse as the show for King King.

To celebrate pulling off the burlesque act, Barak and some of her regular crew--including several ex-NYCB dancers and her sister, Michele--linger after the show, drinking beer and eating cupcakes. (She seems unconcerned about watching her weight, citing Pinkberry, In-N- Out and Chipotle as favorites.) MIA, however, is Barak's long-distance boyfriend, Guy Vardi, an Atlanta-based real estate investor who shares her fondness for eating out. The two met on a New York subway--"He was sitting right there looking gorgeous, so I sat right down next to him"--and they've been together for three years.

But Barak can't stay for long at the impromptu after-party. She has to be up at 5 a.m. to train one of her bunnies.



At the Los Angeles Ballet studios in West L.A. on a Wednesday afternoon, Barak looks every inch the ballerina in black tights and a leotard, her hair pulled back into a chignon. She's here to rehearse for her upcoming performance in "The Nutcracker," which opens this month at UCLA's Royce Hall. As Tchaikovsky's music starts, she cuts her way through the romantic "Sugar Plum" variation with musicality so precise that she sometimes has a moment or two to "hang out" in the pose.

Barak dances like she talks--no nonsense and to the point. "I was getting too old for that place," she says, referring to her previous gig with NYCB. Although she admits that New York is the "mecca of ballet and artistic culture," she's quick to explain that it's an exciting time for classical dance in L.A. The city might not have a world-renowned home team yet, but she notes that LAB is reaching out to audiences and experimenting with out-of-the-box local choreographers such as Jennifer Backhaus.

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