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'Bugsy' Siegel goes to the ballet

The slain mobster is the unconventional hero of Melissa Barak's new dance piece, 'Call Me Ben.'

May 23, 2010|By Laura Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Kings Road Cafe was bustling on a recent mid-afternoon, and Melissa Barak was gratefully digging into a late lunch.

Barak, a choreographer and leading dancer with Los Angeles Ballet, suggested Kings Road as a meeting spot because it's one of her favorite restaurants. It also happens to be a central locus among the nearby landmarks in Barak's young life. It's five blocks east from the cafe to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was born 30 years ago, and a seven-minute walk to her childhood home near Melrose Avenue. It's a short hop to the two-bedroom condominium she bought last year and shares with her younger sister Michele.

And it's only three miles to the Beverly Hills mansion where notorious mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was gunned down on a June night in 1947. Siegel, who built Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel and dreamed of turning the desert into a resort playground, is the unconventional hero of Barak's new piece, "Call Me Ben." It will have its premiere at New York City Ballet's Architecture of Dance New Choreography and Music Festival starting June 5.

Barak admitted the subject is unusual for a ballet. Even more exceptional is that she has chosen to make a story ballet with dialogue. Nine of the 30 dancers will speak. Though nervous about the unusual format, she also expressed confidence that she had matched the right ballet to the score: a five-movement work by teenage prodigy and composer Jay Greenberg.

"I listened to the music and thought, 'Oh my God, I can't make an abstract ballet out of this.' I felt really strongly that it needed to be a story — it was way too theatrical and each movement had such a different shade to it," she said.

While she was "racking my brains" for a subject last winter, NYCB Costume Shop Director Marc Happel called to see if Barak would like fashion designer Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel to create the costumes. She eagerly agreed, and that got her thinking about having the dancers be characters in a story from a bygone era, something with allure and celebrity. Then, while walking home last December, surrounded by the Art Deco buildings in her West Hollywood neighborhood, epiphany struck.

"I kept thinking of old Hollywood glamour and living in this area and my mind started going on that whole path. I got off the elevator, got to my door, and it literally hit me in the gut," Barak said.

She became fascinated with Siegel's Las Vegas obsession and his relationship with mistress Virginia Hill. That and her family's past vacations at the Sahara Hotel, where as a precocious 5-year-old she would get in trouble by putting coins in the slot machines, made it a perfect fit.

She returns to Manhattan Monday to put the final polish on the piece, which features principals Jenifer Ringer and Robert Fairchild. This is Barak's third commission for New York City Ballet, where she danced in the corps de ballet from 1998 to 2007. She left because she wanted greater performing opportunities.

The company's ballet master in chief Peter Martins gave Barak her first big choreographic break when she was 22, the youngest dance-maker ever tapped to create an original piece for City Ballet. He said he selected Barak for the current festival (which also includes premieres by Martins, Mauro Bigonzetti, Wayne McGregor, Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, and set designs by architect Santiago Calatrava) because he believes in her "gifts and talent."

"The most impressive thing about Melissa is that she likes the classical vocabulary and is not afraid to use it," he said, responding to questions by e-mail. "She believes in classical ballet at a time when many young choreographers are turning their backs on it."

Those who have worked with Barak or who have seen her ballets find her to be a "natural" dance-maker.

"The way that her mind works, and the way that she places people, and what's going on behind the principal dancers, she knows so well what she wants to achieve," said Gretchen Smith, who is in "Call Me Ben" and worked with Barak on her 2009 piece "A Simple Symphony."

Lynn Garafola, in reviewing 2002's "If By Chance" (also for NYCB) in the Village Voice, wrote: "Far more interesting than the [ballet's] concept is the choreography. Barak has an intuitive understanding of what makes dancers look good."

Barak has been making up dances in her head since elementary school. While her mother drove her to daily class at Westside Ballet School, her mind was busy. She would concentrate so hard, she said, that without realizing it, she would clench her fists so hard her fingers ached.

Female choreographers have a tough road, especially those working in classical dance; Barak is the only woman represented in the festival. In the last 20 years, New York City Ballet has commissioned works from 46 men but only nine women.

Barak admitted that frustrations may lie ahead. But she's content with her decision to return to Los Angeles. Not only has she had lead roles in George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" and "Apollo," she created a new ballet for her fellow dancers at Los Angeles Ballet, 2008's "Lost in Transition." She's teaching and created a piece for the students at Westside Ballet, run by her longtime teacher Yvonne Mounsey, and she will perform and perhaps choreograph for Morphoses Ballet later this year.

"Right now, it works out nicely that I have this great place in Los Angeles Ballet, and I'm getting to dance these beautiful ballets and wonderful roles, and there's this time to work as a choreographer," she said. "I feel like I'm achieving the kind of dance career I've wanted."

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