Leaving a Legacy: Julio Bocca and the Ascension of Ballet Nacional Sodre

The Ballet Nacional Sodre (National Ballet of Uruguay) celebrates its 80th anniversary this month, on November 23rd and 24th, with a special performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Since assuming the role of BNS Artistic Director in 2010, ballet legend Julio Bocca has taken the company to new levels of excellence and created exciting opportunities for dancers in Latin America. TWD spoke with Bocca backstage before a gala performance in Bangkok (sometimes life is really cool!) about the rewards and challenges of transitioning from performing to directing, his vision for the future of BNS, and more.

What took you from Argentina to Uruguay?

I stopped performing in 2007, and after that I needed a quiet place to live. In Argentina [where Bocca is from and where he danced his farewell performance before an audience of nearly 300,000 fans] I was kind of like a rock star [said with zero arrogance, just the grace and humility of someone for whom superstardom is simply a fact of life]. I couldn’t walk down the street without being recognized and I wanted to live like a regular person, so I moved to Uruguay. They have a huge coast and I love the ocean, so I started to live there. For a year and a half I did nothing, really nothing.  After that, the president of Uruguay asked me if I wanted to direct the company. I said, yes, if I could do it my way, I would love to.  The company was in bad shape. For me it was an opportunity to bring the company back to life and give dancers from South America another company and more opportunities.

I’ve been there since 2010. We’ve done a lot of work and come a long way. We do almost 90 performances a year and lots of international tours. Our repertoire is getting really strong. The company is young. We have 69 dancers in the company, mostly between the ages of 18 and 23, from different parts of the world.  One of our principal dancers, Maria Riccetto, was a principal with American Ballet Theatre.

How do you choose your dancers?

I do an audition every year, which I’ve been doing since 2010. When dancers come into the audition class, I look first for the way they present themselves and the personality they have, then I look at the technical things, feet and the legs. We don’t yet have a strong school that cultivates dancers with all the same line from the same style of training, so we have to build something different. That’s part of the reason I choose dancers of different nationalities and personalities. It’s nice to see that diversity on the stage.

What is your vision for the eventual style of the company?

I’m trying to start building more of an American style. Last year we did the American Ballet Theatre training for the teachers at the school and also for my assistants. I want to hire more Uruguayan dancers, so I need to improve the level of training in the country. When we did the ABT teaching project, I invited teachers from different parts of Uruguay so students from small towns will have the same chance as dancers from the capital.  Actually, I wanted to use the Paris Opera’s training, but it was too complicated. They’re very tight with their system of instruction. I couldn’t wait because I need to create this base of excellent ballet education, so I decided to use ABT’s. In Brazil they have the Bolshoi School’s, and I wanted our company to be something different so we can compete in different ways and not do everything the same. And I have a good relationship with ABT, obviously.

So the idea is to go that way, but in Latin America, we have a lot of different styles. After the Second World War, a lot of European dancers came to South America to live. For example, in eight years of training in the Teatro Colon when I went to school, I had training in French, Cecchetti, Vaganova, and Bolshoi technique. Our technique is therefore very mixed. That’s maybe the reason that we’re a little different. When you do an audition every year, you get people coming from different schools in different parts of the world. So there are always different styles until you get it together. That’s the hard part and the nice part. When you do the second act of Swan Lake, for example, everyone doesn’t have the same line or ports de bras. But you see these different personalities, and when they all work together to perform as one company, it’s beautiful. My ideal is for the dancers to soon have the mind and ability to dance in any style.

How has it been for you to transition from a phenomenal performing career to running a company?

It’s been a great experience for me, and something new. First, working for a government is different. I have the freedom to work as a semi-private organization, though. The government pays for the maintenance of the theater and the salaries, but we have to raise money through ticket sales and sponsorships for productions, touring, and all that, so it’s a mixed model. That’s good because we’re safe with the salaries, and we’re also really motivated to fight for the rest of what we want—good for the company and for me. We have to work and be driven. It’s also been a big change to learn and continue learning to work with young dancers. They’ve had different preparation and bring a different mindset to ballet than previous generations. We actually hire spiritual coaching to help create strong relations. Dancers these days prefer to have more time to rest, which is totally different than the mindset I had when I was a young dancer. We had an argument at the end of 2013 because I wanted to add 30 minutes to our workday. I came up just doing what I was told, but these dancers ask “why?” They’ll say, “I feel better this other way.” It’s really exciting and different for me. Before, directors would tell us what to do and we would have to just find a way to make it. Now you have to listen to the dancers, really understand their perspectives, and find the way together.

I’ve been talking to different directors all over the world and this is happening everywhere with the new generations. And it’s good, just different.  BNS has the theater, two studios, physical therapists, dressing rooms, a good floor. I always say to the dancers, “Enjoy this because you can’t always find it!” But they’ve never had to dance on wood floors or change in a bathroom. They’ve always had all these things and they want something more. For me, for the older generation, I’m like “This is amazing! Please enjoy this!” but for them it’s just normal, and I have to understand that. I try to invite a lot of different teachers as well so the dancers feel challenged and don’t get bored.  We try to grow all the time.