Julie Kent glances up from beneath her eyelashes, transforming into a conniving seductress as she launches into Swan Lake’s Black Swan pas de deux. Odile’s long lines seem to come naturally to the American Ballet Theatre star. But when she and partner Marcelo Gomes reach the sequence of partnered arabesques penchées, something’s not working. The transitions are sloppy and Kent’s arabesque does not reach the full height of the extension. Both dancers stop, and the pianist, tucked in the corner of the studio, follows suit.
A soft-spoken Julio Bocca walks over and tells Kent her leg needs to be higher in the penchée. “But I already feel like my torso’s so far over I’m dancing to the floor,” Kent exclaims. Bocca suggests she think of reaching out with her front arm instead of down. And, he adds, “have control instead of your leg going ‘wham.’ ” The music starts back up and they try again, this time smoothly hitting the line.
“Better?” Kent asks as she and Gomes continue the pas de deux. Bocca nods, smiling.
Just four years ago, Julio Bocca’s onstage presence was so electric it could energize an entire opera house. Yet these days, in his work behind the scenes, his demeanor is so unassuming you could almost miss him. Bocca returned to ABT last winter to help prepare the company for the full-length classics of their spring season, filling the sudden void left by the death of ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson. Since retiring from the stage in 2006, Bocca has been coaching dancers all over the world, and was recently chosen to direct Uruguay’s national dance company. He says he loves his new place in the ballet world, although he admits, “I’m still getting into the new Julio.”
Kent later notes that Bocca was always a natural coach. “Whenever we danced together, I counted on him to help me with my variation,” she says. Having him at the front of the studio was an organic transition, and particularly helpful at this stage in her career: “At a certain point, it’s easy to get comfortable with the roles you dance a lot. But Julio encourages me to not be afraid to work as hard as I can.” Although Kent debuted as Odette-Odile 17 years ago, she continues to seek out coaching to polish the details and develop each performance a little further. “Even when I see limitations for myself, Julio doesn’t,” she says. “He’ll say, ‘Come on, just go for a triple,’ and then I end up surprising myself. In Black Swan especially, he pushes me to make it as dynamic as I can.”
For Bocca, Black Swan is one of the most exciting pas de deux to coach. “It’s only 10 minutes long, but you can tell the whole story,” he says. Siegfried, who must choose a wife in the midst of his birthday festivities, is torn between his elation at seeing this beautiful woman who looks exactly like Odette and his confusion about why she’s different. Odile manipulates him, artfully calibrating her seduction to make him forget his hesitations. “You can’t just focus on the pirouettes and promenades,” says Bocca. “You have to remember these two characters are playing each other.”
The music and choreography of the pas de deux pulse with so much energy, dancers have to be careful not to let it upstage the tension between Odile and Siegfried. Bocca warns dancers to actually hold back. “You can’t let yourself have that crazy energy of, say, Don Q,” he says. “You need more control, more quality.”
When they get to her variation, Kent runs into trouble with the timing on Odile’s attitudes renversées. “Don’t just fall to the side to get your body around,” suggests Bocca. “Go up onto your leg first so the audience really sees the attitude. And then release it with a little breath.”
Bocca also works with her on Odile’s “swan arms.” He focuses on getting Kent to make them bigger, but warns against simply flapping up and down. “The arms and the hands and the fingers always try to reach out,” says Bocca. He suggests she squeeze her shoulder blades together and down. “Remember, Odile is a woman trying to imitate swan arms,” he says. “She’s not an actual swan.”
For Siegfried, one of the biggest challenges is to look more like a prince, less like a ballet dancer. Bocca catches Gomes walking with plié and pointed feet. “You wouldn’t walk down the street with your feet stretching,” says Bocca. He tells Gomes to be freer, more relaxed. “It should be real—like two people who just happen to come onstage to tell this story. Feel it come from inside.”
Bocca says each dancer has to find his or her own way into their character, and then play off their partner’s reaction. “The interpretation changes depending on who you’re dancing with,” says Kent. “It has to be a very alive, responsive feeling.” To make the interaction more natural, Bocca often asks dancers to talk to each other out loud while dancing the choreography in rehearsal. “Really say the words you want to say with your body,” says Bocca. “You’re supposed to look like you’re talking. And when you actually say something like ‘I love you,’ your movement is completely different.”
Jennifer Stahl is Pointe’s senior editor.