It’s not every day a Foss High School track athlete makes it big in the professional ballet world.
But Isaiah Sumler, who switched from track to ballet at age 14, went on to win two big dance scholarships and has just been accepted into San Francisco’s Company C Ballet.
Sumler is back in Tacoma to visit family for the holidays, and for the first time since he left he will dance “The Nutcracker” with his old dance studio, Tacoma Performing Dance Company. But while he’s seen as a star by the rest of the company, Sumler is still as down-to-earth and humble as when The News Tribune interviewed him five years ago.
While here, he is teaching for five weeks with a gentle, encouraging manner that relaxes the nervous dancers lining up to practice passes across the floor at the South Tacoma studio.
He’s low-key about the fact he not only got a professional gig while still at school, but also that it came via a dance tape a roommate made for him – highly unusual. He credits dance director Jo Emery for getting him where he is today.
Yet he’s undeniably a hugely talented dancer. The years since he left Tacoma – including one on scholarship to the Alvin Ailey school in New York and two more at the prestigious Rock School in Philadelphia – have given him a muscled physique and powerful grace that shows in effortless leaps and turns as he rehearses the “Nutcracker.”
“It’s like having (Mikhail) Baryshnikov or another famous dancer come to our little company,” Emery said.
In between rehearsals, Sumler talked about where he’s been in dance, where he’s going and why Tacoma will always be home.
Question: You’re back in Tacoma to visit family?
Answer: Yes, my mom, two of my sisters, my stepfather and three cousins are here. I’ve been here since November; it’s been great to catch up with them.
Q: One of those sisters got you into dance in the first place.
A: My younger sister was dancing with Jo and they needed more boys, so she nagged and nagged me. I was doing track at the time and was like, “No way am I going to wear tights. That’s disgusting!” But I ended up loving it. My sister doesn’t dance any more, but I want to get her back to it. … I’d love to dance with her again.
Q: Is it nice to be back to dance “The Nutcracker” with your former dance company?
A: Oh yes. Until now, my break at school was always too late to dance here. I danced “The Nutcracker” a lot at the Rock, but now I’m in the contemporary dance world and there’s no “Nutcracker,” so the director let us leave in November to guest in other places. It feels like home here.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show people how much I’ve grown in dance. They’ve helped me so much (at TPD), and I love seeing Jo. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. So I’ve been teaching, trying to give something back.
Q: Do you like teaching?
A: I love it. It’s something I want to do aside of dancing. I feel I have a helpful critical eye. And since I didn’t start till I was 14 and from track, I know how you have to work at it and I can encourage other people.
Q: How did you get the job at Company C?
A: In June, my roommate in Philadelphia started taking these dance videos and I sent one to the company. They said they’d like to take me, straight off the video, before anyone else takes me. That hardly ever happens. I’d already auditioned for the Eugene ballet and they wanted me too, but it was too late. So I started with Company C end of July, when I finished school.
Q: How hard is it to make it in professional dance?
A: It’s very hard. Every audition is a cattle call in New York, with hundreds of people in big groups, and they’re looking for just two or three. It’s hard to be seen in all that. People start to get discouraged. Dance is such an opinionated art form – every director is looking for something different.
And then there’s the financing: Until you get a paying job it’s hard to earn enough money to stay in school. Then when you get a job you have moving expenses. Luckily Company C paid me a moving stipend. It’s nice to get paid and recognized for what you do.
Q: How do you like it?
A: I’m enjoying working hard and learning more about myself as an artist. My first performance with them is in January; I’m in about five pieces. I like the repertoire but I do miss ballet. That’s what I really love.
Q: What does an average day look like for you?
A: I get up at 7 a.m. and catch the train to work. Class goes from 10:15 a.m. to about noon, then we have a 15-minute break before the three-hour rehearsal starts. That’s every day. It was hard at first. Dancers never feel very prepared, I was like: What if they hate me and send me home? I spent the first day shaking.
Q: How far have you come as a dancer since your Tacoma days?
A: It’s crazy! Jo just showed me a video of when I last danced “Nutcracker,” and I asked her how she could possibly have let me go on stage looking like that! She said that if she hadn’t encouraged me, I would have given up. I had zero technique. Now I’ve improved by leaps and bounds, learning what I need to give to get something out of the performance.
Q: Are you doing what you want to be doing?
A: I am. This is really me, really what I want to do. Unless you’ve done this it’s hard to understand just how happy you feel dancing.
Q: Your company biography says you’re from Tacoma, not Seattle.
A: I love Tacoma. It’s where I’m from; I have to be truthful to where I’m from. It’s a big part of me.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com