Miami City Ballet brings Balanchine's 'Jewels' - an interview with dancer Luiz Silva

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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Luiz Silva on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. (photo: © Christopher Duggan)
Luiz Silva on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. (photo: © Christopher Duggan)

While most professional dancers begin training at age seven or eight, Luiz Silva had never heard of ballet until age 15. Silva's meteoric journey from his first dance class to the ranks of the esteemed Miami City Ballet in only five years is astonishing, especially considering he quit going to ballet class after only a couple of weeks.

Silva, now 26, spoke to the Bay Area Reporter via Zoom recently, as the company prepared for its upcoming engagement at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall.

Having been born and raised in Barra Mansa, a remote industrial town in Brazil, Silva said, "There is a town next to mine that has a ballet school (Escola de Dança Fundação in Porto Real). The teacher was recruiting. I was just in a regular high school, not doing much, so I gave it a try. I took ballet, contemporary, and Pilates, but after two weeks I was in so much pain. My feet, my back, my knees, everything hurt! I didn't go back."

His ballet teacher called his mother, asking where he was, proclaiming, "You have to send him back! He has talent, he has a real chance with this path."

Luiz Silva as a student at
Miami City Ballet School
(courtesy Miami City Ballet)  

Silva's mother was only 16 when she got pregnant. "She grew up in very poor family," he explained. "As a single teen mom, she had to grow up fast and gave up so much. My grandparents own some land where my mom and her seven siblings built homes. I was an only child, but I had 12 cousins and a sense of family. But nobody was into arts or dance. I was lucky, my mom made me believe that if I dreamed something, it could happen. I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do with my life."

After he quit dance classes, his mother didn't force him to return, but his stepfather gave him an ultimatum.

"I couldn't just go to school and come home. He said I could study mechanics, take a math course, or engage in something to prepare for life. I knew I didn't want to do any of that, so I thought, 'Well, at least dancing is kind of fun.' So I went back."

Time to Catch Up
Upon his return to dance school, Silva said his teacher, Maria Angélica Costa, gave him a crash course in ballet. With a broad laugh, he describes the experience as "Ballet 101 in six months — a lot of extra classes and one-on-one time. There were two other guys, and they had been training for a while, I had a lot of catching up to do, to keep up with them."

In 2011 he began participating in dance competitions in Brazil, one of which earned him a spot at Youth American Grand Prix in New York. He competed in April 2012 and received a scholarship to Orlando Ballet's summer program.

Miami City Ballet dancer Luiz Silva  

The privilege of world travel was something Silva had never experienced. "I felt so out of place at home. Going to big cities and meeting different kinds of people," he expresses with a gleam in his eye, "it was all so exciting. All I had known before then was my small town and my family."

It was during that trip to New York that Silva had a revelation. "This is hard to express because I love ballet so much," he reveals with some hesitation, "but the moment I chose to really do ballet wasn't while I was dancing. I was just standing in the middle of Times Square. I looked around and thought, 'Oh my god, I'm really here, and I got here through dance. It's possible. Dance can transform my life.'"

In 2013, he attended the Miami City Ballet Summer Intensive on full scholarship. He was named an Apprentice in 2015 and officially joined the company as a corps de ballet dancer in 2016.

A Different Kind of Revelation
Long before he came to US or joined the ballet world, Silva knew he was gay.

"I was 11 or 12 when I really knew," he said, "but I had been conditioned to fit the mold, especially in a small town, I couldn't fully be myself. I talked to my mother and she was so supportive, but I didn't come out to the rest of my family until I moved here. I needed to have that distance."

The Miami City Ballet performs George Balanchine's 'Diamonds'  

Although he had come to terms with his sexual orientation, as a mixed-race Black ballet dancer, Silva's racial identity posed an even greater challenge.

"For me," he said thoughtfully, "I never understood my Blackness until the moment it was in my face. I have light skin and can 'pass' sometimes. But at some point, I was told, 'No, you can't do this.' I knew it was about being Black."

With a maturity that defies his young age, Silva believes that "if queer, Black, and nonbinary people keep coming together, we will be heard and make change. I wasn't even comfortable talking about it until two or three years ago. I hold this space in the company. I have that privilege and it's important that people like me show that it's possible. Change is a slow burn. I'm not saying we forget everything; we can tell still tell the big, traditional ballet stories, we just need to approach them differently. The world has evolved. People have different skin tones and sexual identities, and ballet needs to catch up."

Silva's vision for the next step of his professional journey is to create dances where "there are no barriers, where a nonbinary kid can be the prince or the princess. I hope that as an artist I can create a completely open environment within the world we have. It's not going to be easy. Most people are afraid of change. But we must keep going."

Miami City Ballet performs George Balanchine's "Jewels," September 23-25, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus. $21-$148.

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