|| The Boston Globe
|| September 30, 2009
|| Geoff Edgers
Isaac Akiba doesn’t look like a star. At just 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches and 135 pounds, he’s undersized for a dancer, particularly at a major company such as Boston Ballet.
But when “Giselle’’ opens tomorrow night, Akiba will show Opera House audiences why he has defied expectations. The 20-year-old Jamaica Plain native was promoted to Boston Ballet’s company last month - the first Boston kid to rise to its ranks through Citydance, a program that has introduced dance to more than 85,000 children in the Boston public schools since its inception in 1991.
“It means a lot,’’ says David Alexander, education adviser of Citydance, a Boston Ballet program. “From here on out, he’s our poster child.’’
Akiba shrugs off comparisons to Manny Delcarmen, the Hyde Park standout who now pitches for the Red Sox. He said he’s not thinking about where he’s from. He’s thinking of what he has to do tomorrow night: perform the Peasant Pas de Deux in “Giselle.’’
“I’ve never really had such a big part onstage,’’ Akiba says on a recent morning, running a hand through his light brown hair as he sits in his family’s home in Jamaica Plain. “You work so hard on it, and you just want to do it well. A lot of people are watching.’’
His parents will be there. David Akiba, a photographer whose work has been shown in local galleries and the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, compares his son’s position to playing for the Boston Celtics. Jane Akiba, also a photographer, remembers walking home with her 9-year-old son from the Agassiz School on the day Boston Ballet dancers visited his third-grade class as part of Citydance. Isaac stood out as particularly athletic, leading to the first of several scholarships from Boston Ballet.
“I was walking him home from school, and he kept saying, ‘All these people from the ballet came, and they picked me,’ ’’ she recalls.
That’s how Isaac Akiba got started. Before long, he’d left behind Little League and kickball and shifted all activity to Boston Ballet’s Clarendon Street headquarters.
“It was a great way to meet girls,’’ says Akiba of a school that currently has 1,600 students, only 82 of them boys. “The girls are beautiful, smart, and in leotards.’’
By his teenage years, Akiba’s friends were all dancers. When they weren’t in class, he and his buddies would break up their PlayStation games by watching classic performances of “Swan Lake’’ and “ Don Quixote’’ on video. His devotion left little time for high school. Eventually, Akiba dropped out of the Boston Arts Academy, a public pilot school.
“At the time, I thought, ‘What is he doing?’ ’’ says Sam Akiba, 22, his older brother. “But it wasn’t really my place to judge. At the same time, I think Isaac chose what any professional athlete would choose.’’
Christopher Hird, artistic coordinator of the Boston Ballet School, met Akiba when he was 14. He says the young dancer stood out because of his ability to listen to his teachers and willingness to work long hours in rehearsal.
“It became an obsession’’ with him, says Hird. “It’s his work ethic as well as his natural talent that got him where he is now.’’
Citydance brings dance to third-grade students throughout Boston, reaching children from a range of economic and ethnic backgrounds. Recently, the program expanded to Boston Ballet’s North Shore studio in Marblehead.
Eight Citydance students have gone on to join professional ballet companies, from New York and Houston to Alberta and Eugene, Ore. There have also been three other Boston Ballet company dancers with local roots. But Akiba is the only Citydance student to make it into the company.
Akiba lives in the South End now, sharing an apartment with his girlfriend, fellow Boston Ballet corps de ballet dancer Brittany Summer. He met a reporter in the living room where he grew up as his parents, brother Sam, and younger sister, Abby, 11, looked on.
Isaac has always been the quiet one, his mother says. He grew up sharing a room with Sam and older sister Rachel in the first floor of this three-decker. Even now, he speaks hesitantly when asked about his dancing. He might giggle or pause before responding, in a soft voice that can’t be heard above a truck making its way through the neighborhood.
For now, he says, he’s just glad to be part of Boston Ballet.
“I still look up to the principal dancers and the corps dancers,’’ Akiba says. “I used to see them and kind of smile and get nervous. Even now, I’m still in awe. I would like to get out of the corps in two years. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but it’s a goal to push myself. But really, becoming a soloist or principal is not that important to me. Being the best dancer I can be is what’s important.’’
“Giselle’’ runs at the Opera House tomorrow through Oct. 11. Tickets: 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org