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Only When I Dance

The Brazilian dance prodigy Irlan Da Silva discusses his journey from the favelas of Brazil to the Ballet Theatre in New York

Only When I Dance is an extraordinary documentary film following a year in the life of two ballet dancing teenagers, Isabela Coracy and Irlan Da Silva, as they dance their way out of the infamous Complexo do Alemão, one of the most violent favelas in Rio de Janeiro. With wit, charm and tenderness, the film tracks the journeys of these two young hopefuls across Brazil, Europe and eventually New York.  

Dazed was granted this rare interview with Brazilian ballet prodigy Irlan Da Silva, to discuss how the ecstasy of performance compares to favelas of Rio, and the sacrifice involved in penetrating the world’s most elite dance, against all the odds...  

Dazed Digital: How did you first come to study ballet, and when did you first realise this was your vocation?
Irlan Da Silva: When I was about 10 years old I was invited by my cousin to join a social project that had been set up for young people in the Complexo do Alemão, but it wasn’t ballet, it was arts in general. The teacher there was impressed with my dancing and took me to audition at the school Centro de Dança Rio, which I got into. It was at the school that I had my first experience of classical ballet. In the favela ballet is something that most people have never seen or heard of, it’s just not part of that world. I started doing ballet at the school, but I really fell in love with it at the age of 14, when I went to my first international competition, the Youth American Grand Prix in New York. I won first place, and I was dancing there against Germans, Russians, Japanese... everybody. I realised this was something I could really do for my whole life, and something I really wanted to focus on.

DD: Can you tell us a little bit about the Complexo do Alemão where you come from?
IDS: The Complexo do Alemão is a tiny little world within Rio, and a lot of people who live there don’t actually really leave – they live and work there or very nearby all their lives. Their main form of entertainment is watching the soaps on TV, and all of the soaps are about glamorous lives outside the favelas. It's a big contrast to the extreme violence of their day-to-day existence, something I very much wanted to get out of.

DD: You have said it’s unheard of there for a man to join a ballet company, it must have taken a lot of courage for you to decide to dedicate your life to it?
IDS: It was very difficult for me inside the Complexo do Alemão, because it is a place without culture. The only culture for men there is football and drinking, so there was a lot of prejudice at the beginning. Even my father was against it at the beginning, because he didn’t understand.

DD: How long did it take for your father to accept?
IDS: It was the first time my father saw me perform that he changed his mind. He realised that he had better support his son, because maybe it could go somewhere!

DD: What kind of sacrifices does a young dancer have to make to achieve your level of success?
IDS: You have to remain very very focused, knowing what you want and going for it at every cost. There were a lot of sacrifices – but the main ones were really the social sacrifices. There were a lot of times when all the kids my age that weren’t involved in ballet were going out and doing things at night, or even in the daytime at weekends, that I just couldn’t take part in because I had to rehearse. I had almost no social life, because I had to concentrate so much on my ballet.

DD: In the film, Isabela faced problems in castings, because she has darker skin than you. How did you feel about the racial prejudices that she faced?
ISDS: I find it incredibly sad that because of Isabela’s colour that she couldn’t do what she wanted to do. But in the world of ballet it is much more difficult for women than it is for men, because there are so many more women for so many less spaces. I haven’t had the same problems with my skin and I know I am very lucky. For a woman, if there is any problem, no matter how small, there is always someone else waiting to take that space. But I love to see Isabela dance, and I think she is amazingly talented. It is such a shame that it comes down to that, but that is the sad reality of ballet. Ballet is an elitist, white dance.

DD: You’ve been with the American Ballet Theatre in New York for one year now. How does it compare to Rio? Do you ever have time to see the city?
IDS: New York is very different to Rio, different people, different language, and different weather… It’s so cold! I’m always very focused, but sometimes I get some free time to do other things as well. First of all, I want to learn and grow within ABT, but my big dream is to become a well known male soloist ballet dancer. After I feel that I have achieved my goals, I would like to be able to teach, and to pass on what I have learned. And, in the end, I will want to go home to Brazil.

DD: Even though you worked so hard to get out?
IDS: Yes!

Only When I Dance is out now in selected cinemas