A Journey to Dance

Classic Arts Features   A Journey to Dance
A profile of American Ballet Theatre ABT II member Irlan Silva, one of the central figures in the film Only When I Dance. Having premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, the movie follows two young dancers from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the professional dance stage.


On a recent spring evening, a group of New York's young chic set came together for a benefit screening of the movie Only When I Dance, which premiered to critical acclaim at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Members and supporters of American Ballet Theatre's Junior Council had gathered in New York's downtown club Soho House for a night of film and cocktails in order to raise scholarship funds for ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Amid fashion designers, artists, and Wall Street bankers sat the quietly reserved Irlan Silva. While the well-heeled crowd reached for glasses of wine and champagne, Silva, in a sheeny gray suit, sipped unassumingly at a soda. Following the screening, one young patron recognized Silva and approached him. "You're the star of the movie, aren't you?" The setting that night was, literally and figuratively, a long way from Silva's early years.

Only When I Dance, produced by Beadie Finzi, follows two young dancers from the favelas: the shanty-town outskirts of Rio de Janeiro: who dream about nothing but dance, and who wage personal struggles (along with their families) to fight their ways out of poverty to the professional world of dance. In spite of the odds against them, these two dancers (one of whom, Irlan Silva, now dances in the ABT's junior company, ABT II) prove they have the spirit and soul of an artist. It's an intimate, touching, and sometimes tear-jerking narrative: not unlike a good ballet.

Watching the documentary, you can't help but get swept away by Silva's sweet nature. He is fixated on and serious about dance. On bus rides that span the poor neighborhoods of his environs, we see a boy whose pensive gaze tells us that he can see beyond to a world of art and craft and imagination. As Wes Chapman, the artistic director of ABT II, says, "Irlan works hard. He doesn't know anything but working hard."

It was this hard work: along with a true talent for dance: that paved the way for Silva to American Ballet Theatre. He was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and, at the age of eleven, began his studies of ballet at Dance Academy Rio. The introduction to dance was somewhat casual. "A cousin of mine was taking dance: you know, jazz and tap," Silva explains. "I went along with him to one class, and I liked it so much, I ended up staying on." It was a fortuitous tag-along; not only did Silva like dance, but his talent was more than apparent to Mariza Estrella, who would go on to coach him and encourage him to pursue dance professionally. (Estrella plays a prominent role in Only When I Dance, as the gregarious, no-nonsense instructor who makes and breaks the dreams of Silva and his peers.)

In 2004, he won first place and the Revelation Dancer prize at the Concelio Brasileiro de Dan‹a. In 2005, as the representative for Brazil, he placed first at the Youth America Grand Prix finale in New York City. That January, in Rio, he joined the company El Passo de Dan‹a, directed by Dalal Achcar and Mariza Estrella. He went on in 2006 to earn first place and the Best Dancer award at the XXIV Joinville Festival of Dance, in Brazil. He even appeared as a guest artist in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker with the Ballet of the Municipal Theatre in Rio de Janeiro. His triumphs as a winner of the 2008 Prix de Lausanne Apprentice Scholarship, as well as the best contemporary dancer at the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, would truly transform his life. It was through these accomplishments that Silva earned the attention of American Ballet Theatre, which, in September 2008, signed him on for its junior company, ABT II.

At ABT II, Silva is growing both artistically and personally. "He came to us naturally coordinated and with great flexibility and strength," Chapman says. For Silva, Chapman has been a great instructor and force in his life, refining his line and sculpting his ability to take on multiple styles, from Balanchine and Robbins to the classical programs that are expected of all ABT dancers. Silva also singles out his fellow dancers as great instructors. "Watching others rehearse is so good for me," he tells me. "I get to see what they are doing right, and what they are doing wrong." He also gets to sit in on rehearsals for main Company stars like David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes. Just mentioning their names, Silva lets out an infectious smile. "They really," he says, barely containing his enthusiasm, "teach me so much about expression and artistry."

Chapman barely recognizes the teenage boy who starred in Only When I Dance. "Irlan has truly grown into a young man," he remarked. "That's always exciting for me to see." In spite of his growth, Silva remains the endearing kid from the dance documentary. While on tour with ABT II or on the subway, he is still sometimes stopped by strangers who recognize him from the film. With principal-quality coolness and repose, Silva smiles graciously but shrugs it off and returns to the daily routines of any young man, watching videos and hanging out at friends' apartments on the weekends. For all his stardom: and for all the talent his peers and teachers at ABT anticipate for him in the future: Silva is humble. "Irlan is a kind and gentle and respectful guy," says Chapman. "The world could use more people like him." Luckily for us, we've yet to see the best that's to come of him.

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