An unexpected turn at ballet
Boston Ballet's community outreach program, CityDance, gives a talented male athlete a life in the arts.
Back when Isaac Akiba used to play dodgeball with other kids in his working-class Boston neighborhood, he never imagined one day entering a world of tutus and pink slippers – let alone smiling about it.Skip to next paragraph
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But in a story propelled by philanthropy and boyish persistence, Mr. Akiba has not only become a dancer, he's also cracked the top echelons of American ballet.
At the opening weekend of "The Nutcracker" ballet in Boston this year, Akiba was one of many faces beaming amid the soft shuffling of Clara's party dress, the flourish of Drosselmeyer's cape, and the commotion of the Mouse King fighting the heroic Nutcracker.
When he leapt onto the stage in Cossack dress for the iconic Russian dance – bursting with unaffected joy and making only fleeting compromises with gravity – the applause crescendoed to a volume normally reserved for the Nutcracker himself.
Akiba's precision, grace, and dynamic power, showcased by one of America's top ballet companies, are remarkable by any measure. But the fact that he was found almost by accident as a third-grader makes his arc of success unique.
In 1997, the Boston Ballet's community outreach program, CityDance, tapped him for a 10-week scholarship; last year, he became the first participant to join the ballet's prestigious company. He has already performed roles normally reserved for veterans.
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"He has had a very unprecedented start," says Boston Ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen.
Akiba's story, though exceptional, highlights the evolving mission of ballet outreach programs. From New York to San Francisco, ballet companies originally saw outreach as a way to diversify the face of ballet – both on stage and in the audience.
A handful of alumni have, like Akiba, gone on to a professional ballet career. But now such programs are seen more as a gift to the community, enriching budget-crunched public schools with arts education, and cultivating creativity and discipline in students who pursue everything from writing to law.
"We know that, on average, 1 in 100 ballet students become professional dancers," says Charles McNeal, director of education at the San Francisco Ballet. "I'm OK with that, because we are creating a society who loves and appreciates art."
In a corner studio of the Boston Ballet School, six boys – four of whom are CityDance alumni – vacillate between moments of supreme concentration and uncontrolled boyish energy, pulling on their spandex and pushing each other playfully. But when a Tchaikovsky march calls them to attention, they purse their lips in earnest focus, leather ballet shoes squeaking across the floor.
Their teacher, Andres Reyes, instructs them to wait for the right count. "Think about what you're going to do ahead of time," coaches Mr. Reyes, who says parents tell him how much they value this skill of concentration in a world of incessant stimulation.
Not so long ago, Akiba was a boy in these same studios – rowdy but "precociously athletic," says his mom.