When Tyson Ali Clark was born, his parents named him after two of the most famous boxers in the world. They hoped he would follow in their footsteps — and those of his father, a former boxer.
That was one reason his mother, Diane, enrolled him in dance class when he was 3 — to develop agility, athleticism, and balance for the ring.
To his parents’ surprise, he never traded in his slippers for boxing gloves. And now at 17, the Somerville dancer has made a leap: This month he joined Boston Ballet II, the junior troupe of one of the most prominent ballet companies in the country.
“When my dad saw that I was becoming a ballet dancer, he was kind of hesitant at first because of the whole boxing thing,” Clark said with a laugh. “But then he came to a couple shows and was like, ‘Wow, he’s good, he’s really good.’ Now he’s super into ballet. He comes to all my shows and drops me off at my practices.”
Tall and long-limbed, Clark kept a low profile at the season’s first company class on a recent Monday. He warmed up at the barre, making sure his pliés were controlled and graceful. But once the ballet master, Larissa Ponomarenko, moved the dancers to the middle of the floor, Clark’s talent became apparent. He soared in his grand jetés. His pirouettes were effortlessly executed.
Clark is one of the youngest of 10 dancers in Boston Ballet II — a two-year apprenticeship that includes performing with the primary company — but he’s already set his sights on becoming a Boston Ballet principal dancer. There’s only one Boston dancer in the 55-member company, which features performers from around the world: soloist Isaac Akiba.
But Clark is already at home at the company’s Clarendon Street studios, having begun taking classes at the Boston Ballet School in 2008. He left in 2011 to study at the Gold School with Project Moves Dance Company in Brockton but returned to Boston Ballet as a trainee on a full merit scholarship in 2015.
The teenager quickly caught the attention of Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II and head of Boston Ballet School’s men’s program. In 2016, Stark submitted Clark for the prestigious national Princess Grace Foundation Awards. Clark, then 15, knew winning was a long shot. But to his surprise, he got a call from the awards committee when he was completing a summer intensive program with Houston Ballet.
“I just started jumping up and down,” he said, smiling at the memory. “I was overwhelmed and called my mom, and she couldn’t believe it. It made me just really open up my eyes and see what I can actually do.”
Stark was delighted with Clark’s award win.
“I just saw such potential in him,” Stark said. “Tyson is a very versatile dancer, which makes him unusual. He’s also very athletic and dynamic for a male dancer. If all goes well, he could go all the way to the top.”
It was watching the Russian Dance in Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” that first sparked Clark’s interest.
“I was seeing all the split jumps, and I was just, like, ‘Woah,’ ” he recalled. “My mom just threw me in a class . . . and I just loved it.”
His two older sisters were already taking classes at the Mary Flynn Murphy Dance Studio in Somerville, Diane Clark recalled. After his fifth class, Sharon Parillo, the studio’s owner and director, pulled her aside and told her that it was her son who was going to be the dancer.
“He was my ‘one in a million’ student,” Parillo said. “But he’s the most humble young man.”
When he turned 14, Clark told his mother he wanted to be a professional ballet dancer.
“It has honestly been a wild ride,” said Diane Clark, a manager at the Education Development Center in Waltham, who arranged for her son to take online classes instead of attending high school. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else he’d rather be, because he loves ballet.”
Clark’s father, Kevin, who is now disabled, agrees.
“I wanted him to follow in my footsteps, but once I saw him dancing, I knew that was what he was supposed to be doing,” Kevin said. “I knew that he was gifted immediately.”
At the end of the company class, Clark hugged Ponomarenko and thanked the accompanist before gathering his things.
The Somerville teen still finds time to play video games and basketball with his friends. And he said that while friends love coming out to his performances to support him these days, kids did make fun of him on the playground for being a “ballerina” in grade school. But whenever that happened, he would do a backflip, which usually shut them up.
“They didn’t really understand what they were talking about,” he said. “They’d compare it to gymnastics and be like, ‘Wow, you’re a ninja.’ And I just left it at that.”
Diversity in the ballet world has become a hot topic, especially after Misty Copeland was named the first African-American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Clark recognizes that many black kids already look up to him. At summer intensives in Houston and at the School of American Ballet in New York, he befriended other black dancers and stays in contact with them.
“We have to stay connected, because ballet is such a small world,” he said.
Nine days after the company class, Clark took the stage for the first time as a member of Boston Ballet II. The group performed at the Hatch Shell, closing the Landmarks Dance Carnival with Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” a ballet about a cowgirl looking for love. Joined by fellow BBII member Christian Pforr of Watertown, Clark spun and soared, a broad smile breaking across his face.
“The whole group really connected in the way we needed to for this performance,” Clark said afterward. “It felt natural and effortless. The most important thing a teacher has told me about ballet is that you just have to be you. You get the ballet and you take it in as you, don’t watch someone else perform it and try to do it their way. Just do it your way.”