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Head to toe with Julio Bocca.

As American Ballet Theater's (ABT) golden anniversary extravaganza unfolded last year, critics from around the world pronounced Julio Bocca's interpretation of Solor's variation from La Bayadere the magic moment of the entire gala season. Audiences everywhere gasped as he knelt into an effortless port de bras so deep, his head grazed the floor behind him.

Julio Bocca, Argentina's star dancer, has been on a roll ever since, adding guest appearances in Manila, Tokyo, Leningrad, and Oslo to a schedule already too confusing for his own agent to decipher. Fortunately, ABT has been accommodating. Last year, Bocca's contract was redrafted to allow him to accept extensive engagements abroad. Of the nineteen other ABT dancers who share principal status, only senior ballerina Cynthia Gregory, a veteran of more than twenty-five years with the company, performs under such generous terms.

Bocca owes his bravura, at least in part, to his mother who gave him an advantage few male dancers ever get--an early start. A single parent supporting herself as a dance teacher, Nancy Bocca placed her little boy in first position at her ballet barre when he was only four years old. They lived with her Italian parents who encouraged the project. According to Bocca, his grandparents harboured none of the machista views of the more conservative porteno society.

By the time he was eight, Julio Bocca was ready for full-time training at the Instituto Superior de Arte in the magnificent Colon Theater of Buenos Aires, a grand dame among opera houses occupying an entire city block. The daily commute from his barrio took three hours, but Bocca never complained. Even as a small child he adored the Colon, and he was thrilled to be part of its ballet tradition, the oldest in Latin America.

As a dancer he developed quickly. While barely in his teens he was contracted as a soloist in Caracas. There he caught the eye of Brazilian prima ballerina Ana Botafogo who needed a prince. Taking him by the hand, she taught him to partner as Cuban-born choreographer Enrique Martinez watched from the wings. The following year Martinez cast Bocca as a principal in the ballets he was staging in Rio de Janeiro. Bocca credits Martinez with securing his entry into the Colon corps de ballet. Soon after, the choreographer had completed a residency in Buenos Aires.

The Gold Medal awarded to Bocca at the 1985 Fifth Annual Ballet Competition in Moscow accelerated his rise to stardom, but undoubtedly, he could have made his way without it. For decades the Instituto Superior has prepared male talent for export into the best international companies. Muscular prowess has joined the intellectual stream pouring out of Argentina. In New York, for example, Argentine Hector Zaraspe danced with the Joffrey Ballet and then coached the durable Nureyev-Fonteyn partnership before assuming the Julliard chair vacated by Anthony Tudor. Also, the New York City Ballet counts Maximiliano Guerra as a principal. In Brussels, Belgium, Jorge Donn has faithfully interpreted the works of Maurice Bejart since 1963. Most notable perhaps is the choreographer's stunning version of Ravel's Bolero, featuring Donn elevated above 38 male dancers from the Ballet du XXieme Siecle.

Unlike these and other compatriots dancing abroad, Julio Bocca maintains his official status with the Colon Theater which has given him an indefinite leave of absence. He reveres his alma mater and has no desire to sever his ties. The Colon, he explains proudly, offers a young dancer the most complete training available in this Hemisphere.

If his loyalty runs deep though, so does his disappointment. The Colon Theater has never promoted Julio Bocca out of the corps de ballet. Bocca appreciates that the reason is at least partly administrative. He also acknowledges that his entire dance generation is inthe same boat. Still, beneath his bravura, this particular lack of recognition hurts.

So it comes as a surprise that Bocca channels so much energy towards the pursuit of an unlikely dream. He is committed to restoring the prestige the Colon enjoyed when Argentina's booming economy and fertile soil were still attracting hundreds of thousands of European immigrants. Prosperity made for a sophisticated audience which demanded the best from the Colon and got it. In those days, the theater offered European and American stars a rare opportunity to work during June, July and August, the austral winter and off-season in the Northern Hemisphere. Few stages anywhere could duplicate the artistry assembled at the Colon for a given performance, and local talent benefitted from constant exposure to top quality. Additionally, Argentina's war profits during the 1930s and 1940s included refugee artists who further promoted excellence.

Bocca believes the Colon ballet's golden age ended in 1971 when nine soloists died asphyxiated in a freak accident. He is too young to remember that, by then, Argentina was already headed towards economic disaster and chaos.

But Bocca sees hope in his generation. The result is his Ballet Argentino, consisting of 18 Colon contemporaries, all virtually unknown, which dared an inaugural international tour last July. Risky business turned into a successful beginning for this company.

No place was this more apparent than in Barcelona. Just months before, as guest artist in the Teatro Luceu, Bocca had wounded local sensibilities with remarks perceived as indelicate. But when the Ballet Argentino performed last summer, the Catalans put aside their hurt feelings and crowded the open air theater. Bocca danced first the traditional Walpurgisnacht and then led his partner through a stylized tango to music by Vivaldi and Astor Piazzola. The modern work, choreographed by Julio Lopez especially for Bocca's Spanish audience, perhaps as a peace offering, so pleased the Catalans that they continued to applaud despite the sudden drenching summer downpour. The second part of the program was rained out, but Bocca had left the critics agog.

To prepare for the group's Buenos Aires finale, Bocca spent a month in Marseilles learning two new choreographies. One would be a world premier, Birdie, created by Jean Pierre Aviotte and set to rock music and lazer lighting. The other, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort by Roland Petit, is rarely performed because Petit insists on teaching it himself, adapting it to the dancer so that the work evolves with the constantly rising standard of classical ballet technique.

The ovations echoed in Buenos Aires confirmed that Julio Bocca is setting that standard these days. All six performances of the Ballet Argentino sold out. These included two gala nights at the Colon Theater where ABT's Cheryl Yaeger joined Bocca in Sleeping Beauty, and four performances in Luna Park, a sports arena seating fifteen thousand, where Alessandra Ferri, also of ABT, alternated with Eleonora Cassano as his partner. When the final curtain fell, Julio Bocca, for the first time in his life, took a vacation and reflected on his triumphs, frustrations, and dreams.

Americas: How did you win the medal of Moscow?

Julio Bocca: The whole thing was a complete surprise to me. The opportunity to be in the competition arose, and it occurred to me I could present myself, and at least, step on the Bolshoi stage. I also wanted to see what the possibilities were for an international career. They accepted me in the competition. I couldn't believe it when I made it to the third round. And it was even more shocking when they told me about the medal. I didn't think I could ever win an award in a country whose school, as we all know, is the best there is.

You were welcomed in Buenos Aires like some who had won the World Cup...

That was very gratifying for me because I want to popularize ballet. Art is for everybody. It was such a great joy to dance at the Luna Park, where 15 thousand people attended each of my 12 performances, or to work in the Vendimia, which seats more than 25 thousand people.

And then...

I went to Japan to dance. I went to Canada. And one day I got a phone call from the United States asking me if I would accept an offer to join the American Ballet Theater as a principal of the company. I accepted, of course. It's one of the best companies in the world and to join it as a principal at 19 was, for me, totally incredible. Later, many other doors were opened: the door to La Scala of Milan, to Covent Garden, the Bolshoi, the Kirov, the National Ballet of Madrid, and the many festivals. I couldn't ask for more.

You have danced with the best ballerinas in the world. Who is your ideal partner?

Natalia Makarova. For what she is as a ballerina, and who she is as a person ... sensational. During performances, she always gave me alot to work with and brought out the best in me. Besides, I never imagined that I would be able to dance with her.

What do you think about the other companies here in the U.S.?

One of my favorites is the San Francisco Ballet. Alvin Ailey's choreographies are excellent. And how they move! The New York City Ballet has very good dancers, but there's very little of Balanchine that I like.

What roles do you prefer?

The classics, especially Don Quixote. It has strength; it has blood. In order to do it, you have to understand the style, which is why at the Colon we have Spanish classes with Jose Zartman. Studying enriches a dancer's career, making it more complete. We learned how to play castanets and how to foot stomp in the flamenco style. We learned to move our bodies differently, to change our posture.

You opened with Tuyla Tharp's Brief Fling. It was very well received.... Yes, and I was also supposed to do Push Comes to Shove, but I cancelled it. Brief Fling was already new material for me and I wanted to think about that and nothing else. Besides, I don't like it. All these choreographies are nothing but steps to me. They have no life, no argument; there is no character to create. People like these pieces, all the critics like them. Maybe it's me. But I don't relish them, and I like to relish the roles that I do.

Going back to the Ballet Argentino, what made you decide to do a tour with your own group?

I was offered a tour through Italy and Spain with the group of my choice. I first offered the opportunity of the tour to the Colon so that it would be the ballet of the Theatre. We got through all the legal work all right. They wouldn't have had to pay anything; on the contrary, they would have made money. But the Colon Theatre never gave me a definite yes or no, and I could'nt wait. So I formed my own group to represent Argentina. We danced at the Spoleto festival and the festival of Santander. We toured through Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Cuba and Mexico.

It must have gratified the Colon that you traveled so extensively in the name of Argentina...

Yes, I hope so. I now have an international reputation, which gives me certain privileges.

Why do you think the Colon Theatre didn't respond to your invitation?

One never knows. To the Colon, I'm not number one in the world; I'm not Nureyev. I am currently listed in the printed program of the Colon as part of the ballet corps. There is a regulation in the Theatre that one has to pass a competition in order to become a soloist or a premiere dancer of the company. However, there has yet to be a competition. So I've been fighting to have one organized.

You have already established a brilliant international career, why is this issue particularly sensitive?

My goal is to be a premiere dancer at the Colon. I already told the mayor that I want there to be a competition. If there is one, I'll present myself. And I'm going to continue fighting for other people to have that opportunity, like I did with Eleanora Cassano. She was part of the corps and I got her out. We danced together in Caracas and in Europe with great success. In Italy, she received the Tani Award for Revelation of the Year. But in Buenos Aires, she continues to be only part of the corps of dancers. That is typical of this city. Being part of the company, and not being given possibilities to grow makes me frustrated and angry, because you struggle for it, and you know you can do it. Right now I'm doing all I can for these young people. I care about them and this issue concerns me.

Do you have a dream for the future?

Besides continuing to grow and do new things, I'd like to set up a Colon more like the one of the Theater's heydey. In the far future, I would like to direct, and be a maestro, in Argentina.

What do you do in your free time?

When I have two or three days off, I always try to go to Buenos Aires. Family and friends are very important. I travel so much that sometimes it's hard not to feel lonely everywhere. The other day, I got a video from Spain that my friends had made--it showed almost the entire company of the Zarzuela Ballet, doing these different moves that they had invented. It's a very special gift; it's lovely to be in contact with them. Also, this kind of communication with other dancers helps the ballet. You grow as a human being, and then when you dance, you can feel the difference, and the audience can see it.

Paula Durbin is a lawyer, writer and dancer who works on educational and cultural exchange programs with Latin America.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Argentina's star ballet dancer
Author:Durbin, Paula
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:interview
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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