Charismatic, technically brilliant, and marvelously expressive, Julio Bocca commanded attention as soon as he joined American Ballet Theatre as a Principal Dancer in 1986. "He displayed a maturity and depth of understanding of the art form from the get go," said Kevin McKenzie, the Artistic Director. "He instinctively understood the classicism in traditional roles and the contemporary in new works. He seems to have been blessed with an innate sense of theater."
This season at the Metropolitan Opera House, Bocca performs with the Company for the last time, dancing in Manon, Petrouchka, Giselle, and Le Corsaire. "From the time I was a little child," he said, "I knew I had to dance. It felt like playing games. I never want that joy to leave, so I'm stopping now. I respect ballet too much to continue at anything but my best. It's given me a beautiful life."
It has been a life totally devoted to dance. Bocca entered the Instituto Superior de Arte de Teatro Colón in his native Buenos Aires when he was 8, beginning his days at 5:30 a.m. and not returning home until 9 p.m. Upon becoming a soloist in his early teens with ballet troupes in Caracas and later in Rio de Janeiro, he worked even harder, briefly touring the former Soviet Union with the Russian ballet company in Novosibirsk. Shortly after Bocca won the Gold Medal in the International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1985, Mikhail Baryshnikov, then artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, impressed by a tape of his performance there, asked him to come to New York to audition.
"Misha wanted to see me right away," Bocca said. "But I was about to have my first knee surgery and I didn't want him to know. So I asked if I could postpone the trip a month. I told him I had too many performances. I was afraid he wouldn't have hired me, if he'd known. I had to try to get back in shape."
Bocca arrived in New York full of trepidation. Only 19, unable to speak English, still not fully recovered from his operation, and suffering from jet lag after a 13-hour flight from Buenos Aires, he met Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre's headquarters on lower Broadway. "I had no idea what to expect," he said. "First he gave me a private class. Then we moved to a bigger studio, so I could demonstrate a wide range of combinations. As I danced, members of the Company began strolling in. It made me so nervous." Apparently, the nerves did no harm; the following day, Baryshnikov invited him to join the Company as a Principal, an extremely rare honor for one so young.
Accustomed to living on his own, Bocca settled into a New York apartment, and began the rigorous routine he would follow for the next 20 years. Encouraged by his frequent partner, dancer Cheryl Yeager, he slowly learned English. The Company included only a couple of other Hispanic members at the time. "I was very shy," he said. "I was even afraid to take the subway. The good thing about ballet is you don't have to talk."
Bocca had found his paradise. "The Company toured a lot more then and there were fewer principals," he said. "So I performed all the time. It was very inspiring to be surrounded by great dancers like Misha, Kevin, Martine van Hamel, Cynthia Gregory, and Alessandra Ferri and to perform in galas with Natalia Makarova and Alicia Alonso. I knew how lucky I was to have a home and regular teachers and coaches, and the chance to dance a repertory that included both Twyla Tharp and Balanchine. What a luxury. I'd go into the studio at 10:15 and never stop until 8 p.m., to make sure I kept getting better."
In 1990, Bocca decided to take on even more responsibility. If he could perform as a guest at all the great opera houses, such as La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Paris Opéra, why couldn't he build a company in Argentina and perform with it in those theaters? By then, he had achieved rock-star status at home, drawing crowds of 100,000 to his frequent stadium performances. So, with his own earnings, he established Ballet Argentino, and for the first time, young Argentinians had an opportunity to dance with a full-time, international company. It now tours the world, performing a repertory that features works by Twyla Tharp, Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Balanchine, and Argentine choreographer Ana Maria Stekelman, as well as many tangos.
Over the years, Bocca developed a very special partnership with Ferri, so that their performances of Romeo and Juliet and Manon have become one of the special delights of American Ballet Theatre's Metropolitan Opera House seasons. "Julio just lets me dance," she explained. "Sometimes your partner tries to move you around or mold you. He really feels who you are and allows you your freedom. He's also there when you need him. And he's able to be himself. It's a quality we share. We can be deeply ourselves. We don't put on an act. I don't want to think about these being our last performances together; it would be too sad. We've gone through so much together."
Bocca expresses similar feelings. "You see yourself growing up," he said. "You think at first that you know everything and then, of course, you find you don't. But about six or seven years ago, I realized I had become an artist. That I trusted myself. It took me all those years. I told Alex, 'Now I can be the same as you. I can be on your level. I feel secure in myself. When we dance Manon, I feel that we are one.' "
Then why leave the stage? "I want to do something else," Bocca said. "I want to be able to stay up late at night and watch a movie. I look at the people sitting, eating, drinking, and relaxing on the Lincoln Center plaza on spring nights that I pass on my way into the theater and I think I'd like to try being them, not always concerned with classes, rehearsals, getting enough sleep. Now I can travel. I'm going to rent a sailboat and go around the world, drink champagne and just do what I please. I hope afterward I can coach at ABT. It's been my home for so long. I know I'm going to cry a lot at the end. But it's time to go."