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By Joy Goodwin
Other modern dancers may have her sleek lines and limber ease, but no one has Abby Silva’s particular magnetism. Even among the healthy, youthful dancers who comprise the Parsons Dance Company, the blonde with the movie-star body draws the eye. It’s her directness that’s so arresting onstage: She is fierce, free, and very much herself.
The Abby Silva who turned heads at the Joyce Theater last December was a sharper, more powerful version of the talented but inexperienced dancer who joined Parsons in 2002. Now when she performed In the End, a piece that captures the ebb and flow of a dance party, she was the ultimate good-time girl, her high-wattage sex appeal lighting up the stage. In a haunting solo from Peel, she demanded attention, wrestling with both the sleeves of a binding T-shirt and a deep well of anguished feelings. (“I was going through something in my personal life at the time we were making Peel that made it easy to go there,” Silva explains.)
“Everyone noticed her at the Joyce,” says artistic director David Parsons, who choreographed two new solos to showcase Silva last year. “She really gets under your skin. It’s almost spooky.”
Silva was abruptly thrust into the spotlight last year when a wave of retirements made her the troupe’s senior female member—at the age of 26. “Suddenly, Abby had to grow up very quickly,” Parsons says. “And it was astounding. She transformed herself in a matter of months.”
The change was most visible in the way Silva, now 27, took command onstage, oozing body confidence and muscular control. “What makes her special is the way she presents her dancing,” says Elizabeth Koeppen, the company’s longtime associate artistic director. “She draws you in, but it’s not like she’s being showy. It’s not pizzazz. It’s her striking line, her intensity.”
By her own account, Silva has always had that intensity. As a young girl studying ballet and tap in her hometown of New Orleans with Rhonda Edmundson and Charleen Locasio, she made a point of being “front line, center-center” at every dance recital. From middle school onward, she and a handful of classmates would make the trek to New York for summer conventions like Dancemasters of America, where they would cram six girls into a hotel room to save money. As time went by, her friends gradually quit dancing; Silva, instead, got more serious.
“I was more of an athlete and tomboy; I wasn’t dying to be in a tutu,” Silva recalls. “But I stilll automatically thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a ballerina.’ Then, when I was 14,” she says with a laugh, “this body came.”
At that point, Silva had little awareness of modern dance; to her, a newly curvaceous body meant just one thing: She’d have to become a Broadway dancer. After graduating from high school, she headed for New York, enrolling in the dance program at Marymount Manhattan College. In the spring of her senior year, a classmate told her about a Parsons audition. Silva tagged along and—in her first-ever audition—made it to the final six.
“I could see myself getting the shapes in the mirror, and David’s work just fit—it just felt right,” Silva recalls. “I was relaxed and I was enjoying myself, having these little flirtatious moments.”
The next day, Silva went home to New Orleans for spring break, where she was surprised to find Parsons telephoning her parents. He called, she says, to get a sense of how she would fit in with a close-knit troupe that spends up to 35 weeks a year on the road. Apparently he was satisfied; a few days later— on her birthday—Parsons offered her the job.
“Abby’s a very down-to-earth person,” Parsons says. “She understood from the get-go how difficult touring is these days. It was refreshing to find someone who’s not at all highfalutin’.”
Silva makes the best of long stints on the road, and she is matter-of-fact about supplementing her dancer’s income with nanny jobs, teaching gigs, and modeling shoots. During rehearsal breaks, she can be found joking with the guys and chatting with the younger girls. In conversation, she is funny and down-to-earth.That All-American, unpretentious quality is put to good use in Parsons’ work, which embraces mainstream pop music, humor, and accessibility.
Silva, Parsons notes, is willing to dig deep emotionally, and her lean body can withstand physically punishing work. “It’s up to me to challenge her now,” he says, “and I’m going to do my best to give her those roles that will push her to the next level. Because she certainly deserves it.”
Joy Goodwin writes on dance for The New York Times, The Sun, and other publications.