Dance Review: MEMORYHOUSE (Melissa Barak in collaboration with Los Angeles Ballet at The Broad Stage)

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by William Keiser on June 19, 2023

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles


Oh, restraint, that most pesky of virtues. We all begin our journeys with dance in the same way: with wild abandon, the freedom of children running in tutus or imitating bars of pop songs, or holding hands with our elders in a circle, stepping in a grapevine left or right. We know not restraint, then. We know only the will to master the next movement, to know to keep our backs facing the same way in the do-si-do or not step on our partner’s feet in a tango. We know only to thrust and exert, to show on our faces the emotion we’ve invested the steps with, in our early dancing. But it is restraint that distinguishes a masterful piece of architecture from the merely expressionistic; it is geometry, planning that turns us from howling beasts into civilized men and women.

Sareen Tchekmedyian and Evan Swenson

So too it was planning, architecture, that formed the mechanism for the mass extermination by the German state of 6 million Jewish people and millions of homosexual, Romani, communist, catholic, and dissident others, between 1933 and 1945. It was not that the Nazis on the eve of the Holocaust were uncivilized; quite the contrary – they were too civilized. The men sat to pee, they all drowned in paperwork, contemplated their affairs alone at home in Ruhe over Kaffee und Kuchen; they were regimented out of human compassion. They used the advanced mechanisms of planned state progress to stamp out whole strains of humanity, and they were hideously effective because of their architectural restraint and planning.

Aviva Gelfer-Mundl and Evan Swenson

It is for this reason – its restraint – that Memoryhouse, a production of Melissa Barak and her dancers, including dancers from LA Ballet, effectively animates this arguably darkest period in human history, with sophistication and reserve. The piece is 90 minutes, with intermission, and is showing at the Ely and Edythe Broad theater in Santa Monica. It is choreographed to Max Richter’s 2002 score by the same name, Memoryhouse. Throughout, the dancers interact with a created environment of moving projections (onto the scrim, back wall, and stage) created by Sebastian Peschiera of Narduli studio. In the second half, they also interact with a moving set, created in partnership with Hagy Bezberg of BA Collective and The Holocaust Museum.

Laura Chachich and Jessica Gadzinski
with Brian Simcoe, Evan Swenson, Robert Mulvey and Adrian Blake Mitchell

The first half begins with the projected title (onto the scrim) disintegrating into falling grains of sand, which morph into a dark rain. Behind the scrim, the ensemble in grey soft pants and shirts are partnered in effortless lifts to unadorned piano. 5 men, 4 women, barefoot, piqué and are then lifted and carried over and back. Birds enter on the projected scrim as the dancers sway in slow and calm unison. A voice speaks in Russian from Richter’s record. Two couples, in black and white, execute simple, seamless motions. A façade is projected on the scrim in front; behind it, a lone dancer in low bun and dark long dress reaches toward us, is joined by a group of others who put their hands on her shoulders, framed by a window of the suggested building. It’s a family portrait, which then dissipates as fast as we’ve seen it, like Harry viewing his lost loved ones in the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. This tableau introduces one of the first of the Holocaust symbols that undergird this work, and the dancers flit into and then out of it without announcement.

Jessica Gadzinski and cast

The rest of this section features this format, the grey-clad dancers assembling shapes and images out of thin air like a trained school of silver fish. They achingly portray the necessity of teamwork, the futility of individualism in a place like a KZ Lager. The dancers deserve the standing ovation they get at the end; this is a group that is impressively versatile, that can do sharp popping and locking hip-hop-based movements (out of Barak’s comfort zone, but landed) in one of the sections and then don pointe shoes and cambré lugubriously in the next.

Stephanie Kim and cast

In contrast to some of my prior reviews, I don’t actually want to give away many other details of this performance, because the way familiar symbols of the Holocaust (the cattle car, forced labor, escape, torture, resistance, Wannsee conference) are treated, translated, transformed – is surprising and ingenious. I heartily recommend this production. I would even go so far as to say that Melissa Barak, who has recently been named artistic director of LA Ballet, is likely the best thing to ever happen to LA dance. I am excited to see what is to come from her.

My political hat off, Melissa Barak’s Memoryhouse is haunting and elegant, and deeply emotional. It brought tears to my eyes several times and I was not alone. It was never manipulative but always gentle, poetic, and direct, guiding rather than exhorting. The long, painstaking process of creating the piece (it was started before the pandemic and Barak traveled to Germany and Poland for research) paid off clearly in the slow unfolding of historical layers. It’s the kind of work that makes one want to come back again and again, because, like in a favorite book or movie, new elements and moments will come into focus or be thrown into relief.

Angelenos – go, now. Go, again. And keep your eyes peeled for more Barak on the horizon.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Melissa Barak in collaboration with LA Ballet
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage
1310 11th St. in Santa Monica
played June 15-17, 2023 at 7:30, 2023
for future shows, call 310.434.3200 or visit The Broad

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