An unexpected turn at ballet
Boston Ballet's community outreach program, CityDance, gives a talented male athlete a life in the arts.
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But the Akibas let Isaac choose his own path, and by the time he became a teenager, he was the only one of his friends still dancing – drawn not least of all by his enjoyment in being surrounded by willowy girls.Skip to next paragraph
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Enter Franco De Vita, a strict teacher from Italy who prized focus above fun. He wanted his students at the barre promptly at 6 p.m., tights tucked into their shoes, shirts spotless. Akiba struggled under Mr. De Vita's firm hand.
"I think [De Vita] saw I had a lot of potential, but I wasn't putting my full attention to what I was doing," says Akiba, who recalls his frustrated teacher throwing ballet shoes at him and bringing him to tears. "He always liked me, and I liked him, that's why it always hurt so bad."
Akiba's former classmate Alejandro Diaz saw something more profound unfolding, however.
"Franco pushed him very hard because he knew how far Isaac was going to go – and he wanted to be part of that. He wanted to watch this boy, who was just a boy, grow into a dancer," says Mr. Diaz.
Just as the dancer began to blossom, however, De Vita left Boston for another job. The Italian says he still has the "beautiful" farewell note his 16-year-old protégé wrote – a sign of a gentle heart that has touched those close to Akiba.
Akiba may not have realized his passion for ballet if it hadn't been for his friends.
"The guy could turn like crazy," recalls Diaz, who, along with fellow classmate Luca Sbrizzi, often stayed until 9:30 or 10 p.m. to practice their pirouettes. "And we'd say, 'Hey, Isaac, come on!' We wanted to watch him turn; we wanted to try and do the same thing."
When a fierce snowstorm shut down the ballet school for a week, they bundled up in boots and jackets and imitated their favorite combinations in snowdrifts on the Boston Common.
By spring, Akiba had made such progress that he skipped a level and quickly rose through Boston Ballet's ranks – demonstrating a commitment to dance that led him to discontinue his schooling for junior year when his performing arts academy refused to accommodate the Ballet's demanding practice schedule.
"When the rose is fully bloomed, it's wonderful, fragrant," says Mr. Nissinen, who hired Akiba last year. "But when you recognize the rosebud that's just opening, there's something so different, so beautiful about it…. That's what I see in these young dancers; that's what they represent for me."
And what does dance represent for a society buffeted by tough economic conditions?
"If you look at difficult times in history – wars and famines and economic depression – people look to art for nourishment," says Boston Ballet School's director, Margaret Tracey. "I think that human beings are engineered with the need to have art in their lives. It is not a luxury but a necessity."
Indeed, outreach directors speak of the arts as a practical asset in an age demanding creative solutions.
"Rahm Emmanuel studied ballet!" exclaims Mr. McNeal, referring to President Obama's former chief of staff. "[He was] part of an historical administration, because this man had the power of the arts in his background – to perceive possibilities for how to be in the world."
When Akiba steps out on stage, however, he's more likely to be inspired by pure joy than the possibility of working at the White House someday.
If you go to see "The Nutcracker" this season, he advises, "Try to watch the dancer, in their face, and see if they're enjoying it."
Perhaps it is telling, then, that his wide grin subsided only when the dancing ended and he took a bow.