Grand Rapids Ballet continues our Behind the Curtain series, celebrating our dancers from within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in recognition of AANHPI Heritage Month, which takes place annually throughout May.
Today, meet Company dancer, Isaac Aoki, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aoki joined Grand Rapids Ballet in 2013 after studying at prestigious ballet companies across the country including The School of American Ballet, Kaatsbaan Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ellison Ballet, and Miami City Ballet School, to name a few.
Isaac with his older brother, Nicholas.
From an early age, Aoki was inspired to move after watching his older brother, Nicholas, during his Taekwondo classes. “I would run around kind of dancing in the mirrors,” he reflected. It was then, his mother decided to sign him up for dance classes at a neighborhood studio, and then later at Ballet West Academy. In his early years, Isaac studied all forms of movement, from jazz to tap, even exploring musical theater.
It wasn’t until he attended a performance of The Nutcracker at age 11 that Isaac started focusing on ballet. “I remember the first time seeing The Nutcracker and just really recognizing how beautiful it was and how interested I was in that,” he shared. He reflected on the experience, noting that his favorite character was the Sugar Plum Fairy. “It was one of the most beautiful things.”
Isaac’s great grandparents with their children on their farm in Utah.
From that point forward, Isaac began more intense training at Salt Lake Ballet Conservatory. As he progressed, he also moved to attend more advanced institutes such as studying at The University of Utah in its Ballet Department alongside Conrad Ludlow and Mikhail Tchoupakov, and at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC with Nikolai Kabaniaev.
He attributes his work ethic, especially as it relates to the physicality of ballet, to his family. “With something like ballet, you will never perfect it,” said Aoki. “You will always strive for more, and on my dad’s side, the Japanese-American side, they’re very athletic. I’m very inspired by them. Just the physical aspect to always just keep pushing, and then as a person as well.”
Aoki’s background, being from a multi-racial family, has impacted his life in countless ways. Though he said with a laugh, it’s all he’s ever known. “I’m from kind of a non-traditional family,” he said. “My brother is adopted, and my dad is sansei Japanese-American, which is the third generation. So, my dad’s grandparents came from Japan, and then my mom is white.”
Isaac Aoki and Madison Massara in Mozart Symphony, choreographed by James Sofranko, photo by Scott Rasmussen.
In addition to his talents on stage, Isaac also is a gifted photographer, which has provided another lens to celebrate his family’s culture. Growing up, Isaac looked up to his father, watching him grow his career as a professional cinematographer. Following in his father’s footsteps, at 15-years-old, Isaac was gifted his first digital camera by his father and it’s been a passion of his ever since.
In 2017, Isaac captured a moving photographic series, titled “Topaz,” featuring several family members who were born in the Japanese Internment camp Topaz during World War II. The photographs were taken in the desert mountains outside of Topaz. “I wanted to do a photo project that was in homage to those family members,” he shared.
His photographic talents were brought into focus at Grand Rapids Ballet during the 2020-21 Season program, Jumpstart: on Film where he choreographed a dance film titled, “at first sight.” A year in the making, his work turned also into a family project. “My dad drove from Salt Lake City to Michigan and we had a five-day camping trip where I invited dancers to come up to film the section that was on the sand dunes,” he reflected. “So that was a really special thing to work on with my dad through Covid.”
His work, “at first sight,” featured 13 dancers, including company members and apprentices and trainees, with music by Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini.
“I had heard about Isaac even before I came to Grand Rapids, said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “Our Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders had tapped him to make a promotional video of one of her works, and I knew he had won a prize for his photography in Art Prize. I was excited to meet this multi-talented individual and am glad he has continued to grow in his artistry as a dancer, but also through his provocative and original choreography and filmmaking for our annual Jumpstart program.”
Aoki explained that he enjoys photographing dance as a professional ballet dancer because he understands the technicalities of ballet. “It’s very hard to capture a photo that is compelling to a normal person and a dancer,” he said. “Photography is a nice combination of dance, film, and how I see human bodies.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place every year in May to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.