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Finally he's arrived

After early acclaim as a virtuoso, Julio Bocca persevered at making himself into an artist.

March 21, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

I've met dancer Julio Bocca only once. But over the last 17 years, we've spent lots of time together: him performing, me reviewing him. What I couldn't have foreseen from the start was that I was also charting an unusual story in the ballet world -- that of a beloved virtuoso who didn't feel he could call himself an artist until five years ago.

Like me, Southland audiences grew familiar with the Argentine-born Bocca from his myriad visits with American Ballet Theatre, but performers who achieve early stardom at that company almost never deepen or develop. Like a number of dancers, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Robert La Fosse, he had to leave to find himself, and in January he will be dancing with Ballet Theatre's rival, New York City Ballet, in a solo choreographed by the company's artistic director, Peter Martins.

On the phone from Buenos Aires last week, Bocca described a struggle many in the ballet world face to come of age onstage.

Winning a gold medal at the 1985 Moscow International Ballet Competition gave Bocca enormous fame in his homeland as well as launching him on a stellar international career. A year later, at age 19, he made his North American debut at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the Ballet Theatre "Nutcracker," displaying not only technical brilliance but a refined sense of classical style.

Ballet Theatre continued to showcase him in its versions of the 19th century classics, unleashing his appetite for technical and temperamental fireworks that earned not merely critical raves but awe. "Bocca's intensity also informed his bravura dancing -- particularly the end of the 'Shades' coda [in "La Bayadere"], a passage he terminated on one knee with a backbend so deep that the top of his head touched the floor," I wrote in 1991.

We all fell in love with him, of course, but even by that time had begun to worry too, fearing that, like many before him, he'd simply find a niche and stay there. He seemed fated to remain the company's resident firebrand, and his initial partnership with the great Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri in "Romeo and Juliet" had proved ruinous, exposing his limitations perhaps more than his strengths:

"When this Juliet danced, it was always a declaration to her Romeo -- while he invariably remained absorbed in showing off feats to the audience," I reported in 1990. "They even clashed in death: Bocca's stylized throes and soft, slow self-protective fall to the floor versus Ferri's wild explosion of suicidal despair."

As it turns out, though, that mismatch became Bocca's artistic salvation. "In my mind, it was always important for me to be an artist on the stage," he said last week. "Maybe I was worrying too much about my pirouettes, my technique, but I felt a big change inside of me when I started working with Alessandra Ferri. I was feeling so far away from her in acting, I had to work double or triple to get at least half of what she had.

"Each year, I worked a little more to find a way to really live in the roles, to put all the experience that I had in life on the stage and make more real what I was doing."

Along with this new challenge, Bocca had become a company director, forming Ballet Argentino in 1990. Initially, it emphasized some of his more dubious instincts: a tendency to unbutton or remove his shirt at every opportunity, a fondness for Soviet-style kitsch and an overreliance on his solid-gold technique. "Eight years after his Southern California debut," I asked in 1994, "shouldn't an artist of his caliber be doing more than confirming what we already knew about him?"

Bocca soon provided a definitive answer, commissioning for Ballet Argentino a series of daring dance-dramas that touched on controversial social, political and sexual issues, and also becoming a much more profound interpreter of his Ballet Theatre repertory. By the end of the '90s, he at last had met his own standards as a dancing actor, finally believed that he had the right to call himself an artist and could even tell Ferri after a performance, "Now I'm very happy: I feel like you." Moreover, early in the new century, his company's full-evening "BoccaTango" in Buenos Aires expressed another facet of his maturity through its powerful contemporary exploration of traditional Argentine music and dance.

Bocca still hopes to bring "BoccaTango" to the U.S., and he commissioned a piece, "The Man in the Red Tie," from its choreographer, Ana Maria Stekelman, for his company's current tour. "We have such a good time together," he said last week. "It's nice to find a choreographer to work with like that. With Misha [Baryshnikov], it was with Twyla Tharp for so many years or with Mark Morris. I have that same feeling with Ana."

He also spoke several times of the risk of running a company as something that "helps me to grow up. I think you have to be risky so you don't get boring.

"It's part of growing up not to do all the time the 'Don Q' pas de deux. For me, that would be easy, and the audience would like it. But that's not me now. I want to do different things, new things, risky things, to grow up and enjoy being on the stage. In a couple more years, I'm going to stop, so I want to enjoy the maximum that I can until then."

*

Julio Bocca & Ballet Argentino

When: April 3, 8 p.m.; April 4, 3 p.m.

Where: Cerritos Center, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos

Price: $25-$60

Contact: (800) 300-4345

Also

When: April 6, 8 p.m.

Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara

Price: $25-$100

Contact: (805) 893-3535

Segal is The Times' dance critic.

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