From Clara’s impish little brother Fritz to the regal Snow King, Boston Ballet soloist Isaac Akiba has performed 13 different roles in the company’s acclaimed production of “The Nutcracker” over a record 22 years. For him, this season’s production Nov. 26-Dec. 26 is of special note and not just because it marks Boston Ballet’s first performances in the Citizens Bank Opera House since the pandemic shutdown in March 2020. It will be Akiba’s first time dancing onstage since 2019, when he tore his ACL during a live “Nutcracker” performance.
Akiba was dancing the virtuosic lead in Act II’s Russian character dance, with its split jumps and pirouettes, when he came out of a double saut de basque and his knee gave way, requiring months of rehab. Some dancers might have called it a day, but Akiba’s back in action, and among his roles opening weekend? The bravura Lead Russian. “All I can do is trust in all the work that I’ve done and go out there and do my thing,” he says.
He calls the return to live performance a reawakening. “Collectively, everyone is really excited to be onstage again, to take off our masks and smile at the audience,” he said recently after a long day of rehearsals. “It’s been so long, we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to perform for thousands of people. I feel very emotional when I think about it.”
Some of that emotion may serve to keep Boston Ballet’s dancers motivated over the next four weeks. “Nutcracker” season is a test of stamina. Akiba describes long nights and short days, high stress and little rest. But for him, the challenge is also part of what keeps him determined to grow as a dancer.
“Ballet doesn’t get easier [as you get older],” says Akiba, now 33. “You have to bring yourself to a high level of fitness and artistry. ... I always want to be better, so I continue to push to reach new heights. That’s really important in a company like Boston Ballet, not to become complacent.”
Akiba’s history with the company dates back to age 9, when he was picked to study ballet through its free introductory training program, Citydance. “I was always really athletic, but at the same time I like to focus on details, and for me ballet coupled those together in a beautiful way,” he says. He went on to study at the Boston Ballet School, then joined Boston Ballet II before being promoted to Boston Ballet in 2009, the only Citydance alumnus ever to make it into the professional company.
“I’m a kid from JP. I’ve taken the Orange Line [to the ballet] my entire life,” Akiba says. “I’d walk into company class and see these exceptional artists/athletes from Korea, from Italy, Georgia, South America, China. …They inspire me. There’s such dedication. I wish audiences could watch what it takes to get onstage at such a high level. On a daily basis, that’s what keeps me going.”
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen calls Akiba a natural jumper and versatile in roles from classical to contemporary. Nissinen praises his thoughtfulness and character work, citing the dancer’s portrayal of the mad inventor in “Coppélia.” “He gave such a true portrait,” Nissinen says. “For a young artist to do such a killer job in a role like that is truly impressive.”
However, it is Lead Russian that Akiba cites as his most rewarding role, estimating that he’s performed it more than 100 times. “Strapping on the leather boots comes with the same familiarity as a seasoned Red Sox player has when tucking their hand into a perfectly worn in glove,” he wrote in a recent essay.
Seeing the dance as a young ballet student inspired him to pursue the art form seriously. “The bravura leaps coupled with the fantastic music of Tchaikovsky is such a thrill,” he says, “a moment when a classically trained artist can feel like a rock star. … Every exercise during my rehabilitation was executed with a singular goal in mind — to fly through that dance again.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.