On June 4, the New York City Ballet premiered If by Chance--Melissa Barak's first work set on dancers from the company (her Telemann Overture Suite had begun as a workshop piece, set on students at the School of American Ballet)--and followed it with repeat performances on June 9 and 12. As New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning noted in an interview article prior to the premiere ("A Fledgling Choreographer Takes Chances in Her Stride," June 4), the ballet--set to Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor--was "a big jump for so new a choreographer. But Ms. Barak seems prepared for whatever comes."
Choreography flows from Barak in a largely spontaneous response to music. As a small child, she told Dunning, she would dance about the room while watching old movie musicals: from films with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland (her "idol," she says) to White Christmas and A Chorus Line. The choreographer she now most admires is Jerome Robbins--"There's so much heart, there's so much soul, in every piece," she explains. She likes to work with dancers who have a "natural way of moving," and prefers those who "look mature" to ones who are "too skinny."
Though Barak feels a special affinity for the music of Shostakovich, her choice of the particular piece for If by Chance was, in part, by chance (as was the case with Telemann Suite), for she found it while browsing in a record store. But there is nothing casual about her decision to set a dance to it. Her explanation spills forth, reflecting an intuitive understanding of how music is transformed in a listener's subconscious.
There's emotion, there's depth, there's shape, there's a feeling. There are moods. It tells a story. It's not just music that isn't music. It's melody. There's just so much--oh!--drama. You can't help but make it more than just steps. Making an empty ballet to it is almost impossible.
In a long and detailed review of If by Chance ("Destiny Takes a Holiday For Star-Crossed Lovers," New York Times, June 6), Anna Kisselgoff noted that Barak is "a creative talent worth following." She considers the new ballet to be more "original" than Telemann Overture Suite (which reflects Balanchine's neo-classical plotless ballets), but less "stunning," lacking the "blazing impact" of the earlier work. Though Kisselgoff finds aspects of the new ballet wanting, she nonetheless treats it with considerable respect.
In saying that Barak has "a gift for exploring pure movement," Kisselgoff seems to imply that her work is like that of abstract painters who "explore" pure color, or form.* But such an implication ignores what Barak herself says about her work--not to mention Kisselgoff's own observation that Barak's "abstract piece" has "a distilled Romeo and Juliet motif [with] a striking duet for the two lovers." As Michelle Kamhi and I argue in What Art Is, no dance movement can be wholly "abstract" in the way that nonobjective painting is.
Readers interested in following Barak's career are urged to visit the New York City Ballet website for scheduling and ticket information on each new season. Since the New York Times site carries dance reviews, available at no cost (to registered visitors) for one full week, readers nationwide can also keep abreast of its critics' assessments of the work of this promising choreographer.
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* In a similar vein, Kisselgoff recently wrote of a new work by New York City Ballet resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon: "Essentially, the ballet is about highly compressed movement" ("Complex, Spare and Inventive in Ligeti's Flow," New York Times, 17 June 2002). Yet she spoke in the same breath of figures in the work rising up "in a chaotic, yanking circle . . . formed out of matter to speak of the human condition." If the ballet "speak[s] of the human condition," however, it is not "essentially . . . about highly compressed movement."
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 12: "Avant-Garde [and Traditional] Music and Dance." Copyright is held by the authors.