Dance, Ayn Rand suggested, is "the silent partner of music," and in the partnership between them, music "sets the terms." As Michelle Kamhi and I wrote in What Art Is:
Dancers and choreographers alike acknowledge that music provides the emotional core of dance as well as its structure. Isadora Duncan, one of the pioneers of modern dance, improvised her performances in direct response to the emotional thrust of instrumental works by classical composers, and thereby established a complementary relationship between dance and music that has had an incalculable influence on ballet choreographers. The first plotless ballet--Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides, to music by Chopin--was inspired by her approach.
Melissa Barak, whose Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor was premiered by the New York City Ballet last month to virtually unanimous critical acclaim, carries on this tradition. She leaves no doubt as to the inspiration for her work: "I have an intuitive response to music," she told Roslyn Sulcas in an illuminating interview published in the January issue of Stagebill. "I've choreographed in my head to whatever music I'm hearing, for as long as I can remember. Classical, hip-hop . . . it all makes me picture movement. It's as if the music is an electricity that sparks the dance." A member of the company's corps since 1998, Barak is only 22 years old, and this is her first work before the public.
Telemann Overture Suite--set to music by the Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, and featuring two female soloists accompanied by four male and eight female dancers--was actually first seen in June of last year in a slightly different version at the annual workshop performance of City Ballet's School of American Ballet. The critics took note even then, most giving Barak high marks as a choreographer. Robert Gottlieb (formerly editor of The New Yorker, he for many years served on the company's board of directors) wrote in the New York Observer that Barak's work was the "highlight" of the workshop. "Choreographers are born, not made, and they're born all too rarely," he observed, adding that Barak already "commands the fundamentals" of her craft.
She responds to music appropriately but not slavishly, she has an easy flow of dance ideas, her dancers always seem to be in the right place without strain--she thinks spatially. . . . Though [the] vocabulary [of Telemann Overture Suite] is restricted, it never seems constricted. In other words, this ballet is not just promising, it's accomplished.
Jennifer Dunning, a critic for the New York Times, similarly considered Barak's ballet the workshop's "centerpiece." The young choreographer, she noted, "already knows how to get and keep her dancers moving and make them look good at the same time."
Telemann Overture Suite opens with a somewhat note-for-note ensemble dance. But soon the ballet's handsome, flowing formal patterns take over, as well as the pleasure of seeing dancing by a genuine classical ballet choreographer who knows and values the vocabulary and takes it to a level beyond mere steps.
Form is all here, unsurprisingly perhaps, given the demands of the music. But dance breathes within the formal patterns. And Ms. Barak gives the dancers' legs as much expressive power as their upper bodies, usually the vehicle for dramatic nuance in pure-dance ballets. Telemann Overture Suite is a work of promise and accomplishment.
Dunning's estimate that "form is all" in Barak's ballet, and that Telemann's music makes it so, is not quite accurate, however. True, the score does not suggest strong passions or evoke deep feelings. Still, it is music, and no music is pure form. If it were, it would not be art. Form on its own cannot convey the kind of content Dunning herself alludes to in her references to the choreography's "expressive power" and "dramatic nuance."
Another critic who praised the workshop performance was Deborah Jowitt, in the Village Voice. Like Gottlieb and Dunning, she found much to admire in Telemann Overture Suite, also deeming Barak's work "accomplished," though in her view the novice choreographer "occasionally crams in too much." Nonetheless, Jowitt concluded, Barak "has an innate sense of what steps suit what music, and she plays engaging games with contrasting linked trios that seem like bright conversations among friends." Not surprisingly, Barak told Sulcas that she picked dancers who "look like they're having fun onstage." At the matinee I attended, they did indeed.
The one sour note on the ballet was unexpectedly sounded by Tobi Tobias (whose criticism I have long admired) in New York magazine. Her tepid observation that Barak's choreography was "adept" and had a "gracious air" seemed forced, given the unremitting negativism of her subsequent remarks. For Tobias, the ballet was "the novelty of the program," and "pleasant but dull, being too symmetrical and almost eerily predictable." Barak "suffers," she further claimed, "from the neophyte choreographer's delight in what the elements of the classical vocabulary can be made to do"--a trait which Tobias patronizingly attributed to an "ingenuous enthusiasm." Tobias's judgment that Barak's choreography is "almost eerily predictable" seems unduly harsh, as it suggests that unearthly or mysterious (and often malign) influences are at work. And what is one to make of her suggestion that experiencing "delight" in what the elements of academic dance can do is something that a neophyte choreographer suffers from? In truth, such delight has little to do with experience. It stems from a choreographer's direct engagement with the music, and is precisely what makes dances like Telemann Overture Suite sparkle.
The transition of Telemann Overture Suite from workshop to New York City Ballet repertory was an unqualified success, to judge from the performance I attended. Most in the audience that matinee seemed delighted with it, and further reviews corroborated the work's prior accolades. This time around Deborah Jowitt had this to say: "On New York State Theater's big stage, the ballet looks modest, fresh, and neat. . . . There's nothing hidden or complex in this work . . . [yet] Barak finds ways to make us see individual dancers." Jowitt's one reservation was that the choreography "does leave a rather frontal, two-dimensional impression." Not to worry, though: "[Barak's] 22. She's got time. And talent."
Iris Fanger, in the Christian Science Monitor, found the ballet "charming," noting its "ever-changing configurations" and "impressively varied vocabulary of steps," while Anna Kisselgoff, chief dance critic of the Times, proclaimed the work's debut a "triumph." Citing Barak's "involvement with her score and her loyalty to George Balanchine's premise that music is the 'floor for dancing,'" Kisselgoff called Telemann Overture Suite "a beautiful ballet with a clean, fresh look . . . a special decorum . . . [and a] streamlined, youthful style," and she suggested that audiences would "glimpse not only a novice choreographer's great promise but simply also . . . have a grand time in the theater." Barak, she observed, "moves dancers around with the precision of a chess master." I take issue only with Kisselgoff's subsequent claim that Barak's plotless ballet is "about structure," a remark that echoes a common critical fallacy. Structure (or form) is an attribute of all art. But no work of art, even pure ballet, is about structure.
Finally, Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, found Barak's new work "even more interesting" than another City Ballet season premiere, Quartet for Strings, by the company's Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins. Of Barak's "promising work," Barnes (who has been writing on dance longer than most) had this to say:
A post-Balanchine piece, structurally not unlike Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, it has form, clarity and unforced invention. It was perfectly danced by its young cast, . . . and it was nice to note the way that Barak here and there permitted a colloquial gesture amid all the crystal purity.
The cumulative message of these critics, each of whom can be unforgiving in rooting out pretentiousness and mediocrity, is unmistakable: this new kid on the ballet block is worth watching.
What of Barak's future as a choreographer? Despite her innate musicality, she is, by her own admission, not yet familiar with much of the great musical tradition she can draw upon. When Martins asked her to create a dance for the School of American Ballet workshop, her approach to selecting a score was quite pragmatic. "I needed to do a piece that was simple and unadorned, and around 20 minutes. I bought a few CDs and found [the Telemann suite], which had the plain, unaffected quality that I wanted," she explained to Sulcas, with the mixture of unassuming candor and good sense that seems to typify her.
When not taking classes or rehearsing, Barak ought to spend as much time as possible listening to live performances of chamber and orchestral works by the great composers of the past. In sampling work by contemporary composers, she will do well to trust her intuition: "I don't like music that doesn't sound like music," she declared during an interview in a session of City Ballet's popular "Ballet Insights" series devoted to her work. She might also attend dance performances of other companies--perhaps starting with American Ballet Theatre, just across the Lincoln Center Plaza. And she might head over to Brooklyn to see the eclectic music-sparked modern dance of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris is justly acclaimed among living choreographers, and his expressive, occasionally sublime and often witty, work easily transcends the label "modern." Barak could learn much from him.
Barak might also read the late dancer-choreographer William Carter's inspiring monologue-like interview (his are the only words which appear in print) with Tobias, published in Dance Magazine more than a quarter century ago (June 1975), in which he spoke of his formative years, and his life in dance. Carter was not much older than Barak is now when he joined American Ballet Theatre, only to become a member of City Ballet several years later, eventually leaving there too, to follow his own muse with the peripatetic chamber dance troupe he had helped form. Years later he rejoined Ballet Theatre, rising to the rank of principal dancer. Deeply introspective by nature, and inspired by a wide range of music, as by the vicissitudes of life itself, he was a unique figure in twentieth-century dance: though he had the technical vocabulary for ballet, he was even more at home in the worlds of modern and Spanish dance, and was much beloved and admired--not only by audiences but by the leading dancers, critics, and choreographers of his day--for his sensitivity, passion, and integrity. Barak would do well to read, and reflect upon, his story.
The success of her choreography notwithstanding, Barak understandably still considers herself primarily a dancer (the two activities are inseparable, of course). To see her dance, I attended a performance of the second act of Swan Lake, in which she was one of a group of 28 (!) swans--not the ideal setting in which to form an impression of a dancer, to be sure, but I was determined to do so by concentrating on her and, for comparison, on other corps dancers nearby. Barak comported herself well in this admittedly constrained role--better than most and far better than some. Poised and focused throughout, she was expressive in both body and face, the latter not an insignificant consideration. As Wendy Perron has remarked, "the face of a dancer speaks volumes" ("The Face Can Say as Much as the Legs," New York Times, January 13, 2002).
Barak finds herself in a delicate situation--that of a young dancer attracting favorable critical notice not for her dancing but for her choreography, in which she has been strongly encouraged by Martins. He has already asked her to make a new dance for the company's Diamond Project in the Spring. She is setting it to Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor.
As Barak told New York magazine (January 7, 2002), "that fire in me as a dancer is what fuels my mind for choreography." To flourish as a choreographer, to attempt more complex work with greater emotional range and depth, she must continue to grow as a dancer. In a company like New York City Ballet, this is unlikely to occur unless she is promoted to the rank of soloist before too long. But she is young, and there is still time for the difficult career decisions that must eventually be made--not least her own.
[See the website of the New York City Ballet for a biographical sketch of Melissa Barak.]