If you ask the incredibly sweet and humble Irlan Silva how he ended up as a soloist dancer in The Boston Ballet, he will tell you it was luck. The Only When I Dance star says he was just always in the right place at the right time.
Many would disagree, including us. Especially, when you consider where Irlan grew up.
Irlan spent his childhood literally dodging bullets in a drug and crime-filled favela north of Rio De Janeiro. Definitely not the right place.
Despite the danger and desperation that oozed out of every corner of the Brazillian shantytown, Irlan explains there was still so much good. Good people; talented people who deserve a chance. The closest example he had of this goodness was in his very own home. Irlan’s parents, two happily married people forever dedicated to each other, protected Irlan with love.
In Irlan’s young eyes, his life was normal. A quiet boy, he went to school in the morning, played with his cousins in streets after school, and worshiped God in church. He thought nothing of those moments crawling on the floor to avoid gunfire between warring gangs. He and most of his community were in a bubble, unaware of the outside world.
Young Irlan Silva
But that was about to change. Like his Aunt, Irlan wanted to be a lawyer. He wanted to improve himself. So, he took advantage of the programs that were offered for free inside the favela, like a cartoon drawing class. It might not seem like much, but this was Irlan’s first opinion of his fortuitous opportunity.
Right next to that cartoon class, kids were learning how to tap dance. The rhythm of the rap-tap-tap of feet drew Irlan in to watch. He desperately wanted to try, but the shoes were very expensive. Seeing how eager the young boy was, the teacher gave him a pair. Those shoes bought him more than a class, they gave him a chance to discover and show his talent.
The young boy’s gift and dedication immediately became apparent. So much that the dance school who sponsored the lessons quickly offered Irlan a scholarship to The Centro de Dance Rio, a professional dance school. Not only did attending the school opened Irlan’s eyes to the world outside of the Favela, but also to different forms of dance, and to the true calling to which he would dedicate his life- ballet.
Irlan recalls attending his first professional ballet, a performance of Giselle. The grace of the dancers mesmerized the young boy and the physical demands and required skill intrigued him. He wanted to challenge himself like that.
At first, he only told his mother. Despite the true passion growing in his heart, he also felt fear. What would his father think of his son performing ballet? His father initially did scoff at the idea. They were from a rough area. Ballerinas were “princesses” not men. How could his son dance on stage like that?
But, remember, Irlan’s parents loved him and like any loving and good parent should do, his father didn’t squelch his son’s passion. Instead, he went to see his son perform. Rather than feeling ashamed, he was overcome with such pride and amazement at his son’s talent he literally wept with joy. There wasn’t any way he would not support his son, in fact, along with his wife, he then became Irlan’s biggest fan. They gave him one of the biggest gifts a parent can give to their child; their blessing for him to leave and pursue what make him happy.
At 12-years-old, Irlan became a soloist in the Brazillian dance troupe. There isn’t any serendipity in that success, and it wasn’t just raw talent. Without hard work and dedication talent goes nowhere. Irlan’s commitment to his passion sent him leaping toward his next success and onto the national stage.
Irlan landed in New York City to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix. The 14-year-old boy gazed in amazement at the skyscrapers and fast-paced city, wishing his parents could be there to see it with him. But, despite feeling out of place and nervous, he stepped onto that stage composed. When Irlan dances, it is all he feels. His passion and precision showed. He won first place in the Contemporary Dance category, for the first time Irlan realized he might actually be good. Seeing New York City was a humbling and empowering experience. At that same moment when Irlan started to grasp his capabilities, he now saw with clear eyes the better life that existed outside of the favela walls. He wanted to give his parents that better life and saw dancing as the means to give those two loving people what they deserve.
In Brazil, TV cameras and flashing lights greeted the international dance champion. He went on to win first place again in 2008. The boy from the favela had won first place in New York City and not only was Brazil paying attention, but also was the entire world, which included the BBC.
Shortly after winning the competition, the world’s largest broadcasting company proposed a documentary tracking the young dancer. Without really knowing what that meant, Irlan agreed. Producers visited the boy every three months, eventually following him to the Prix De Lausanne Switzerland.
At the Prix De Lausanne Switzerland.
Not only did Irlan win first place in that competition, but also a contract with a professional dance company in any country. He chose the American Ballet Theatere in New York City.
Once again, Irlan was back in New York City. That little documentary produced by the BBC had Irlan walking the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival. Pretty cool for a teenager, although he shrugs off the success of the movie.
It was an exciting time, but he was also living there by himself. New York is a big place. But when you’re 16, speak a different language, and are immersed in a different culture, that big city seems monstrous. His loving mother would call him every morning to wake him up. But, despite the phone calls, he was still homesick. Especially, when the winter came.
Irlan had no idea what to wear in cold weather. His friend told him to put plastic bags on his shoes to keep his feet dry. But the short and cold winter days made Irlan miss home. Many 16-year-olds would have decided to go back to the comfort of Brazil. But, Irlan does not quit. He just works harder. So, he gave even more of himself to ballet to keep his mind off what he missed, and he kept that goal of giving his parents a better life in the front of his mind. Through the company, he also had the opportunity to travel. Something his parents had strongly desired for him. During this time he developed a love of cooking, especially fresh seafood. It became a way for him to relax and decompress. Through these mechanisms, he got through those days in New York City.
He stayed in New York for three years. Eventually seeing all of those people on the streets daily, without knowing any of them, made him start to feel lonely. He realized New York City might not be for him. He had been to Boston before; it was so much like those cities in Europe that he loved.
Not only was Boston a great city, but the Boston Ballet had a wonderful repertoire of diverse content. Irlan took a chance and sent his portfolio, which earned him an audition, and then a contract.
In Boston, Irlan felt calmer. He was meant to dance in our charming city. He joined the Boston Ballet at the age of 19, and now at 26, by no other means that hard work, he is a soloist in the world-renowned dance company.
Irlan Silva in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker; photo by Liza Voll Photography; courtesy of Boston Ballet
The hardest part of being a dancer in such a well-known company isn’t the 7:30 am to 6:30 pm schedule, plus performance times. It isn’t the necessity of a healthy diet and exercise, or telling friends you have to go to sleep and can’t head out onto the town. For Irlan, the hardest part is going so long without seeing his parents. The last time he saw those two wonderful people was four years ago.
Irlan And His Parents
Irlan And His Parents Visiting Boston
Well, that’s about to change. Irlan recently received his Green Card. After 11 years, Irlan is going back to Brazil and in January when it’s the summer. The best part- his parents do not know. He’s devised a plan with his best friend to pick him up at the airport and deliver him to their front door on January 2nd. Irlan plans to ring the bell and give the two people who sacrificed rarely ever seeing their only child so he could follow his dreams the best New Year’s gift ever- a hug. That’s probably going to be the best two-week vacation any of them have ever had.
What are Irlan’s future plans when he gets back to Boston mid-January? He hopes to be the Tom Brady of ballet, dancing with a long and illustrious career. But Irlan also sees beyond his dancing years. He plans to attend business school with the goal of one day opening a restaurant where he can then employee his second love- cooking. Perhaps a Brazilian- Asian fusion featuring fresh seafood.
We’d definitely pull up a seat at any eatery run by the dedicated and talented Irlan Silva. Until then, he should be proud of all he’s accomplished in just 26 years. He gives joy and culture to all who see him dance. But mainly, he should be proud of showing the world that talented and smart people can come from even the most dangerous and oppressed places. Beauty is everywhere. It just needs to be cultivated. Irlan hopes he can also help others in the Favela show their talents.
Thank you Irlan. We wish you a wonderful reunion with your parents – and enjoy that sunshine! What you might not realize is that you provide sunshine to all of us. 😉
The Haute Life
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Irlan Rehearsing At The Boston Ballet School
Irlan Silva in Marius Petipa's Sleeping Beauty; photo by Liza Voll Photography; courtesy of Boston Ballet