Everything about Irlan Silva’s life is measured in terms of then and now.
Friends discuss him that way. And he discusses himself that way, too.
At 23, Silva is a rising talent with Boston Ballet. But six years ago he wasn’t sure whether he’d even live long enough to see his dream of a career in ballet come to fruition. Then and now.
“It’s kind of hard not to” think of life that way, Silva says with an easy laugh. “Where I came from, becoming a ballet dancer was not something people even thought about, or even tried to do.”
Where he came from — a gritty favela in Rio de Janeiro — was documented in a critically acclaimed 2009 documentary called “Only When I Dance,” in which Silva and another dancer from the slums of Rio, Isabela Coracy, battle the odds in pursuit of their careers. Favelas, shanty towns that surround the city, are rife with poverty and violence.
“It is surreal when I look back at where I was emotionally and where I lived,” Silva says. “It was scary. There were drugs and gangs — the worst. Many people were very poor. The authorities did not spend much time in the favelas, because they were hard to control.
“But from the first time I became interested in ballet, I never felt threatened. No one ever tried to — how you say, bully? — bully me into not dancing. I say it was scary, because you never know when you might be accidentally hurt or caught between gangs.”
Silva’s interest in ballet developed when he attended a professional performance at the age of 10. “I was hooked immediately,” he says.
He says his natural flexibility and leaping ability carried him until he was able to receive formal training, but not every flexible would-be dancer in Brazil was able to land a spot in Centro de Dança Rio, the nation’s premier ballet school.
“My teacher — a great teacher — Mariza Estrella is responsible for inspiring me and pushing me on my way, out of the nest, as they say about birds.”
Estrella, a former classical ballerina, established the school in 1973. And though a complete education in Centro is valued at tens of thousands of dollars, often her students attend for free, because like Silva, they are from the favelas and from families who can’t afford tuition.
“I left Centro and Estrella a stronger person and a better dancer,” Silva says.
Indeed, while under her tutelage, Silva won Best Contemporary Dancer at the 2008 Youth America Grand Prix in New York and was a top 12 finalist in the competition’s senior division that same year.
And at 18, Silva moved to New York, where he began dancing for the American Ballet Theatre in its ABT II company, a troupe of a dozen young up-and-coming dancers. In 2011, he joined the corps of the Boston Ballet.
‘Where I came from, becoming a ballet dancer was not something people even thought about, or even tried to do. . . . It was scary. There were drugs and gangs — the worst.’
For all the help he’s received, Silva says his parents deserve as much credit as his teachers.
“Ballet can be expensive,” he says. “My mother ran a cafe from her home. She still does in the same place. And she just made sure I had whatever I needed, like ballet shoes. And even if she couldn’t afford them, she still supported me and pushed me.”
His father, the man Silva coyly describes as “very traditional,” is a strong supporter. “And as a boy then and a man now, it is important to have your father’s blessing,” he says.
Irenildo Santos, a factory worker in Rio, said through an interpreter in a recent phone interview that his son’s dancing ability was what convinced him that ballet was a worthwhile pursuit.
“We live in a very tough community. It can be very dangerous. There is crime. And there are even people who wish to harm you if you don’t behave in a certain way or fit a certain mold,” Santos says. “So it was only natural for me to say to him, ‘This seems unusual. Do men perform ballet?’
“But when I saw him dance the first time, I was very moved. And now I am his fan. I am his biggest fan. I have said so before. I am very proud.”
And Santos isn’t the only one.
“His technique is amazing, and his interpretive abilities are second to none,” says Anthony Randazzo, ballet master at Boston Ballet. “Irlan is just so full of growth. He has not just a natural ability as a dancer, he has an ability to absorb what you tell him and integrate it with what he knows already. Plus, he’s just a wonderful person, and a beautiful young man.”
Giorgia Lo Savio, the Miami-based producer of “Only When I Dance,” says she was struck by Silva’s focus.
“He seemed to be able to drown out the sounds around him, the strife going on around him,” Lo Savio says. “In the sense that he knew what he wanted and believed he would accomplish it, he was like an old soul . . . proud but not arrogant.”
Silva agrees with that assessment. “I was very confident as a teenager that I would reach my dream career. And my industry is the kind that you know very young whether you will make it or not,” he says.
Barbara Martins, Silva’s roommate, says he is a different person than the one she met in a New York City dance club just months after his arrival in the United States.
Once they learned each had family in Brazil they became very close friends — so close that Martins recently moved to South Boston to live with Silva.
“Well, you know he’s very serious about his work, his ballet, but I’ve seen him change into a more complete person,” Martins says. “He is a more mature man than the one I met.”
To relax, Silva enjoys cooking, movies, and quiet nights at home with friends.
“He loves to cook. He’s a great cook,” Martins says. “And he’s best when he’s cooking for other people.”
Silva says he learned to cook out of necessity. “When I got here I was a young man without his family, and I missed food I like from Brazil. So I taught myself to prepare food properly, especially seafood.”
Luciana Schachnik is often on the receiving end of Silva’s home-cooked meals. He calls her “my Boston mom.”
Schachnik, a former ballet dancer and longtime volunteer with the Boston Ballet who lives in Brookline, noticed when the company brought on board several dancers from Brazil, Cuba, and Spain.
“I’m from Brazil, too, so I empathized with them being far from home,” Schachnik says. “I hate to call myself a mentor, so let’s say I began to mother them. I began hosting Thanksgiving dinners at my home for them. And even though I’m Jewish, I put up Christmas trees for them. I wanted them to feel that family bond while they lived here.
“As for Irlan, I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s one of my kids,” says Schachnik, who has two daughters. “I talk with him about life and his relationships and even the stress of the ballet, because I’m familiar. He is family now.”
Silva, who speaks by phone with his parents almost every day, says he couldn’t be in a better place in his life.
“In terms of city, I’ve fallen in love with Boston,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I would, coming here from New York. But I learned quickly that Boston has history and class. It reminds me in many ways of Paris.”
As for his life and circumstances, he says he’s learned to dream and keep both feet firmly planted in reality at the same time.
“I’ve always told people that believing in your dreams means they can happen,” he says. “I never understand why people don’t take that seriously, because I have found that when you believe, the people around you believe.”
Silva knows of what he speaks.James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.