Choreographer debuts morality tale on dangers of jealousy

Barak Marshall didn’t want to be a dancer. A lawyer, a singer, a scholar — anything but a dancer. “It was what she did,” Marshall says of his Yemenite mother, Margalit Oved, the one-time prima ballerina of the Inbal dance company, a giant of the dance world. And so he resisted. He sang in a choir; he went to Harvard and studied social theory and philosophy. But like most stories in which a man tries to flee his destiny, the world had other plans.

In 1994, Marshall moved to Israel where his mother had been offered the leadership of the Inbal, and tragedy struck. His beloved aunt died, leaving Marshall in a deep funk. He found himself working out his frustration in an empty dance studio. A friend saw him and suggested that he “build a piece” in honor of his aunt. And so “Aunt Leah” was born.

“Aunt Leah” won the newly minted artist acclaim and first prize at the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s Shades of Dance Choreography competition in 1995. And from there on out, Marshall began choreographing and performing his own work in earnest, garnering even more acclaim and recognition in Israel and Europe. Pretty soon some big names were knocking at his door. “Ohad Naharin from the Batsheva Dance Company invited me to be the house choreographer.”

By 2000, Marshall was on top of the world — young, successful, a great career ahead of him, and a prestigious job with one the world’s top dance companies. And then it all fell apart. In an instant, with one snap, Marshall’s career crumbled faster than the weight of his body upon his broken leg.

“I couldn’t work in my field, I couldn’t make any money,” said Marshall, now 43, of the dark days after his accident. The break was serious, the recovery took two years, and he couldn’t dance. His livelihood taken away, Marshall returned to his hometown of Los Angeles and humbly began waiting tables and offering academic tutoring to make a living.

After his leg healed, Marshall tried to make a comeback. “I was knocking on doors, pounding on doors, trying to get back into dance,” Marshall said, but no one would have him. “Once you’re off the map … it’s very hard [to get back].”

It was a tough transition but Marshall began to prepare himself for a life after dance. He turned to singing. He worked with Yuval Ron Ensemble and even went on tour with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He said he was “at peace.” For the second time, the man who never wanted to dance had gotten his wish, but once again, the world conspired against him.

In 2007, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles asked Marshall if he’d be willing to choreograph a dance for its exchange program with Tel Aviv. Marshall developed a piece called “Monger,” and suddenly the dance world rediscovered Barak Marshall. (His troupe performed the work at UCLA’s Royce Theatre in 2010.) Calls came in, as well as commissions, and pretty soon, Marshall was a choreographer again.

Tina Berkett, co-founder of BodyTraffic, a Los Angeles-based dance company, recalls meeting Marshall in an odd way, through the husband of her co-founder, Lillian Barbeito. “We know Barak, because Lillian’s husband met him at the locker room at their gym.”

“Los Angeles has such a gem in Barak,” Berkett said. “He has a movement vocabulary that’s so distinctive and so different. His works are so obviously Barak Marshall.”

And so, in early 2011, BodyTraffic and Marshall hooked up for a performance at REDCAT’s “The A.W.A.R.D. Show” and ended up winning a $10,000 prize to create new piece together. Their luck got even better when the Joyce Theater in New York, impressed with their work, gave them an additional $25,000 toward the partnership.

Berkett couldn’t have been more thrilled. “The reason that we love Barak and love working with him and are so interested in performing his work is that his work appeals to audiences. There are theatrical elements, and the music is always so fabulous that even non-dance lovers find his work entertaining and enjoy watching it.”

The result of those prizes is a work that will preview at American Jewish University (AJU) on May 31, in advance of its premiere at the Joyce. The title remains in flux but will undoubtedly be a mouthful if the original title, “And as the Rooster Crowed the Green Bride Floated Through the Village Square,” is any indication. The piece draws heavily upon his mother’s Yemenite roots.

“It’s a morality tale about these nine children whose parents had so much jealousy of others, and so much envy and greed that they cursed their children to a life of rage and loneliness and unhappiness. They passed that down to them, and these once very beautiful, beautiful children became increasingly, as the years went by, uglier and uglier. And it’s really a story about the danger of jealousy.”

The story is actually based on his mother’s real neighbors in Aden. The people on the street used to call the neighbors’ home “The Burning House,” because screaming would emanate from it at all hours as the family members fought with one another. “Most of my pieces are set in some nostalgic past,” Marshall explained. “This piece is about 10 broken and hopeless people trying to find hope.”

The piece also draws from “Yiddish, Ladino and Yemenite Jewish texts and songs,” Marshall said.

Berkett and Barbeito set out to find some companion pieces for Marshall’s composition. “We knew that Barak’s work would be highly gestural, a lot of theater, a bit of comedy, very fast-paced,” Berkett said. To create a contrast, Berkett chose to stage a piece with a much different tone by Stijn Celis, a Belgian choreographer. “Stijn’s work is very beautiful, has balletic qualities; it’s a bit more ethereal.”

To complete the program, Berkett and Barbeito commissioned a new work by choreographer Richard Siegal. “We wanted a third work that would maybe show a lighter side of BodyTraffic,” Berkett said. Siegal’s work is heavily jazz influenced, lighter and more technical.

The three pieces will have their official premiere at the Joyce Theater in NYC on June 6 and 7, as part of the Gotham Dance Festival, but they’ll be previewed together at AJU on May 31.

“I just can’t think of a better place to do it than the AJU,” said Berkett, whose husband sits on the school’s board. The AJU has shown itself to be an inventive patron of dance over the last couple of years with its “Dancing with the Rabbis show,” and its association with Glorya Kaufman, one of the dance world’s greatest philanthropists. “I feel like … we’re opening up the world to the ability of the Jewish people to produce and create art,” Berkett said. “These men are among the finest choreographers in the world, and they happen to be Jewish.”

For his part, Marshall said he is excited to see his new work performed.

Asked why he’s used the word “rooster” in the titles of multiple pieces, Marshall became reflective. “I think I have a sense of affinity with the rooster,” he said. “Like the rooster, a man is very, very proud, and has this very seemingly strong and beautiful exterior, but can be killed just like that … gone just like that.”

Barak Marshall and Bodytraffic will preview their new work at American Jewish University on May 31 in advance of its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre. For ticket information,