A sharp, biting wind darts along the brownstones and narrow side streets of Boston’s South End, yet one story above the intersection of Clarendon and Warren, it’s quite warm in Boston Ballet’s Studio 4.
Nine young men in matching white T-shirts and gray tights have been dancing for 45 minutes, repeating combinations accompanied by the sounds of a lively rehearsal pianist and the measured instructions of their technique teacher. While the boys’ canvas ballet slippers are white, the leather soles are black, worn and weathered from hundreds of hours of force against the sprung floor.
As requested by his teacher, Tyson Clark is executing a jete en ménage into a double saut de basque, which translates into a series of impossibly impressive leaps. He takes off on one foot high into the air, rotates clockwise 180 degrees, lands on his other foot, and quickly launches again a microsecond later, continuously repeating the step, whipping his way around the room. His legs are long and powerful, his leaps high and seemingly effortless as he works his way around the bright studio in a circle until he ends with a double turn — in the air — smoothly landing on one knee, arms outstretched, parallel to the floor, palms up, as if to say, “Ta da.”(Though ballet dancers do not, in fact, say “ta da.”)
Witnessing it in person, it’s easy to see why the 16-year-old from Somerville is a rising star in the dance world and a 2016 recipient of one of the community’s most prestigious awards: The Princess Grace Award for Dance Performance.
“It was supposed to be a very temporary thing”
As you may guess from his name, Tyson Ali Clark was not expected to be a dancer. The son of a former Golden Gloves boxer who laced up in Lowell, Clark was thought to be destined for another type of athletics.
“This wasn’t the plan,” laughs Clark’s mother, Diane, admittedly still incredulous at how her son’s career has unfolded. “He was supposed to go into dance temporarily to gain coordination, agility, strength, and just take it from there and go into a sport of choice.”
Like many little brothers, Clark’s first exposure to dance was sitting in a waiting room while his two older sisters were in class. At Mary Flynn Dance in Somerville, Diane watched her 3-year-old dance in the hallway and eventually asked if he wanted to try a class. He said yes, but she didn’t expect much, thinking, He’s not going to want to stay because it’s a bunch of girls.
You can imagine her surprise when his teacher emerged and told Diane that Tyson was outperforming the girls. Her reply, “No. No way!” Diane had danced as a child and knew the focus required, even at age 3. Yet when she went to see for herself, there he was, standing on his spot, waiting for his music cue, and keeping up with the choreography.
At his first recital, Clark took the stage in a Cookie Monster costume. “He stayed on his mark,” Diane remembers. “All the other girls were either playing with their dress or waving, but he stood right there with pride.”
The next year, Diane started to see talent blossom: “It just took off from there. We couldn’t believe it.” Two years later, Clark was performing in regional dance competitions, had his first competitive tap solo, and won his first title.
“We started introducing more and more dance and he would remember everything,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how he could retain all the routines.”
Clark’s older sister, who had taken classes at Boston Ballet School, encouraged the 8-year-old to do the same to supplement the classes at his home studio and improve his technique, given ballet is the foundation for all other dance styles.
“He said, ‘Mom, I like it. I want to stay,’” Diane recalls.
“We quickly, within days, identified his extraordinary talent,” says Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School.
Clark studied at Boston Ballet School for three years, but left to return to a traditional multi-style studio and the world of competitive dance. But after four years of competing — and winning — in various styles such as tap and jazz with the Gold School of Dance in Brockton, Clark longed for a new challenge and looked once again to ballet to provide it. Now 13, he won a merit scholarship and spent a summer studying with the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official dance school of the New York City Ballet.
“Going to SAB, watching New York City Ballet, watching Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, it really inspired me to be a ballet dancer,” he says. “There’s a lot of athleticism in ballet — jumping, turning, lifting the girls. I find that a challenge, and that’s what I like.”
Soon Clark was back on Clarendon Street, a number pinned to his shirt, auditioning for Boston Ballet’s professional program.
“I’m walking around the room, and I’m looking at students and their numbers, and there’s this very tall young man — mind you, when he left the school he was still shorter than I was — with these long, long legs,” Tracey remembers. “I looked at his face, I looked at him again, and I realized that was Tyson.”
He aced the audition, receiving a full merit scholarship to study as a Boston Ballet Trainee.
“It was so easy to welcome him back and invite him to be a scholarship student in our professional division,” Tracey says. “Just like Michael Jordan was a talented basketball player, Tyson Clark — you could immediately identify he was a talented ballet dancer. He’s a natural talent. He was made to do this and he loves it.”
A trainee’s life
As a trainee, dance is a full-time job. Clark and other trainees (who usually range in age between 16 and 19) are in class at Boston Ballet from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The days are longer if they have an upcoming performance. The daily technique and men’s classes, as well as conditioning, modern dance, character dance, and partner work, translate into about 20 hours of dance per week, 30+ if they’re rehearsing for a performance. The goal? To progress through the trainee program and eventually join Boston Ballet II, the organization’s second company, or Boston Ballet, the main company.
Clark has already performed in numerous productions with the main company and Boston Ballet II, such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. (If you’re attending Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker this month, Clark will perform the role of an urchin in the prologue and a mouse in the battle scene for select performances.)
“Ever since I was younger, I always loved to perform,” he says. “It’s what you work up to. I love to do that, making the audience happy and relaxed and enjoy watching me dance.”
“I’m the nervous one,” Diane adds with a laugh. “I can’t even sit close, I’m way back! He’s so humble and so soft spoken. He doesn’t like to have the spotlight on him. But put him in costume and onstage to perform for an audience, and you’d be, like, ‘Was that the same kid?’”
Boston Ballet School students are also supported by the organization’s Wellness Team, featuring nutritionists and physical therapists. A licensed social worker — and former dancer — “works with our students on understanding what it means to become a professional dancer and giving them the coping skills and tools in order to deal with a performing career,” Tracey notes. “We’re providing that education because, yes, we’re training the next generation of dancers, but after they’re done they’re human beings, and we really look at the whole student. We want to make sure we’re giving them all of the education they need to succeed in their career and beyond.”
The schedule requires Clark to enroll in an online homeschool program. Every morning he gets up, eats breakfast, and fits in as much schoolwork as he can before hopping the Red Line to the studio. He finishes up schoolwork after he returns in the afternoon or evening.
“We’re always a student, it’s a tedious process,” Tracey notes of this level of training, a fact the public may not realize. “Whether you are an 8-year-old beginning the study of classical ballet vocabulary or a principal like Misa Kuranaga [of Boston Ballet], we start each day with the same technique class.”
At the trainee and professional level, instruction is an art of tiny angles and small degrees. A heel placement adjusted 2 inches here, an arm elevated a few degrees there — imperceptible corrections that make all the difference under an expert gaze.
“It basically takes 10 years to become a professional,” says Tracey, a graduate of the SAB and a retired principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. “That’s just to become a professional, to step into the corps de ballet in the big, long line. It can take anywhere from 2 to 10 years to be promoted through the ranks of a company. I hope at this point, with all the national acclaim of dance in the media, like So You Think You Can Dance, people have realized it’s a very athletic endeavor. Ballet dancers have been compared to some of the most rigorous, elite athletes in the world. Not only is it athletic, there’s the artistic elements; at the end of the day we’re expressing art through dance. It has that wonderful combination of your body and artistic expression all wrapped up into one.”
The Princess Grace Award
Clark’s return to Boston Ballet School has been so successful, the teen was nominated for — and received in October — the prestigious Princess Grace Award for Dance Performance. Awarded by the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, the nonprofit provided more than $1 million in scholarships, apprenticeships, and fellowships this year to foster rising talent in dance, theater, and film — all passions of the late princess. Clark was one of eight recipients in the dance and choreography category this year and the youngest award-winner.
“It’s one of the most prestigious awards one can receive through dance,” notes Tracey, an early winner of the Princess Grace Award herself. “It is like getting an Emmy in our field. It is incredibly rigorous, an unbelievable honor. Some of the greatest names in dance over the last 30 years are in that category.”