When she was growing up, Melissa Barak hated Christmas. “I used to beg for a tree,” said Barak, a choreographer who premiered a new work for New York City Ballet last weekend.
Her mother, who was Jewish, tried to cheer Barak up by listing all the famous Jewish stars. “Joan Rivers, Barbra Streisand, she’d say. She did it to make me feel better.” It didn’t work, Barak said.
But then her mother added one more: “Well, the guy who created Las Vegas was Jewish,” Barak recalled her mother saying. That caught her attention.
Barak’s new ballet, “Call Me Ben,” is about the life of gangster Bugsy Siegel, the same Jewish figure who captured her imagination years ago. While she did not intend to make a work about Siegel, when she was given the score, written by19-year-old composer Jay Greenberg and full of film noir and jazzy riffs, it seemed to call out for it. “The music had a story with it,” Barak said. “And Bugsy Siegel popped into my head. I just followed that instinct.”
Barak’s father was an Israeli who divorced her mother when Melissa was a toddler, and it was her mother who raised her in Los Angeles. But Barak said she got her strong sense of Jewish identity mostly from her maternal grandmother, who immigrated to America from Russia at 16.
“When she was alive, she cooked all the meals,” Barak said, implying that it was East European Jewish culture, not religion, that she most identified with.
Her own Jewish identity helped her forge a kind of kinship with Siegel, too. “I’m definitely proud to be Jewish,” she said. “I think that what my people have accomplished is incredible.” She didn’t mean to praise criminal activities, but she said the success of Jews in so many areas of life was inspiring.
In researching Siegel she was startled, she said, by how strongly he identified as a Jew. “He hated Hitler,” mentioning the support he gave to fellow gangster Meyer Lansky to sabotage Nazi parades in heavily German Yorkville.
For the ballet, she focuses primarily on the courtship between Siegel and Virginia Hill. But she included a nod to his, and her, Jewish background. “There’s a little Jewish joke in the script,” she said, noting that the ballet features spoken parts.
She created the script with Ellen Bar, a company dancer who’s also Jewish, and they put in a line for Siegel to introduce Lansky that plays on their Jewishness: “When my friend Meyer Lansky shows up at the club, it’s not a holy day,” Siegel says. “It’s a miracle.”
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