Director's Notes: Maestro in Montevideo

January 26, 2014

Julio Bocca injects his experience and flair into Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional Sodre.

Julio Bocca’s performances during his 20 years at American Ballet Theatre had the tangible feel of verismo. Whatever character he danced—Romeo, Albrecht, Onegin—grabbed you from the stage and swept you into the action. So why wouldn’t the Argentinian star demand energy and excellence as an artistic director? In March 2010, Bocca was appointed director of Ballet Nacional Sodre (BNS) by Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, and in a short period he has dramatically elevated the company’s standard.

Uruguay’s national ballet company has a long history; in 2015 it will celebrate its 80th anniversary. Nijinsky almost accepted an offer to start a school in Uruguay after his final tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1919. An earlier incarnation of BNS, Corps de Ballet Sodre, one of the two major 20th-century South American ballet companies (along with Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires), was founded by Uruguayan choreographer Alberto Pouyanne. A stream of Europeans left their mark on the company, staging classical works such as Les Sylphides, Swan Lake and Coppélia. Over time, the troupe experienced highs and lows, and when Bocca assumed directorship, there were only 25 dancers. He has expanded the company to 68, including five soloists and four principals. One of the ballerinas is former ABT soloist (and June/July 2010 Pointe cover girl) Maria Riccetto.

“When I came here,” Bocca says, “one of the nice things was there was little repertoire”—the works danced were primarily those of South American choreographers, such as Oscar Araiz and Mauricio Wainrot—“so it was very easy for me to add work.” The choreographers, contacts and knowledge of productions from Bocca’s ABT years have proven useful. “It’s important for these young people to know the work and know the styles,” he says. Emphasizing BNS’s classical tradition, he has already mounted full-length productions of Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Le Corsaire and Natalia Makarova’s staging of La Bayadère. Bocca has also presented triple bills of ballets by choreographers such as William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián and Nacho Duato. In December, the company danced Boris Eifman’s Russian Hamlet. Bocca has plans to acquire Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 2015 and John Cranko’s Onegin in 2016.

Is Bocca hoping to make BNS the ABT of South America? “It will be a dream for me to compare BNS with the big companies in the world, because in South America we don’t have companies like ABT, but we have the talent to make it possible,” he says.

Bocca also mentions that his tenure as director of Ballet Argentino in Buenos Aires gave him valuable experience. “What I learned there is how to maintain distances with dancers and still continue to be able to communicate what I want from them as artists—discipline, respect and love for the opportunities that they have.”

The majority of BNS’s dancers—52 percent—come from Uruguay, with others from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Spain. Bocca says he is open to hiring dancers from anywhere, although he wants to cultivate artists from within Uruguay, because the government pays the dancers’ salaries. What does he seek in his dancers? “As a director, I look for everything!” he says. “I look for a great body, nice height, beautiful feet and legs, but the most important thing is what they present”—their passion and charisma. In addition to the annual auditions, he scouts for dancers when he judges competitions like the USA International Ballet Competition, where he’ll serve on the panel this year. Bocca teaches the company himself in separate classes for men and women. And for those who don’t give 100 percent: “If they’re lazy, or come late for class, next year, I say thank you.”

BNS performs at the Auditorio Nacional del Sodre, a 2,000-seat theater in Montevideo, which also has two studios where the company rehearses and takes class, as well as a physical therapy room. In addition to national tours, the company has booked 2014 trips to Chile, Russia, Thailand, Israel and Malaysia. With a budget of $2 million, the company has two private sponsors and three national sponsors.

So why did Bocca choose Uruguay over his home country Argentina? Besides the fact that he was offered the job, Bocca, now 46, loves Montevideo and met his life partner there, “the other half of my orange,” as he says. “I have my sunset in front of the water. I enjoy going to work and coming back home. For 27 years of my career, I have never done that.”

Bocca extends that sense of domesticity to BNS. “It’s a friendly company,” he says. “One of the things I like is that the dancers are very close. That’s important. When people from other companies come to live here, it’s a big change. They find it’s like a family here.”

At A Glance

Ballet Nacional Sodre

Location: Montevideo, Uruguay

Length of contract: 52 weeks

Starting corps de ballet salary: $1,100 per month (a living wage in Montevideo)

Additional perks: An extra month of holiday pay

Auditions: Held every October in Montevideo; considering additional auditions in U.S. and Europe. Annual contracts start in January.


Audition Advice

“Give me an audition from the heart, so that I can really see if you love it when you are dancing. I want to see something is there. Auditions are for everybody, not just for the Spanish-speaking. Dancers send me tapes and DVDs, but I want to see the person in class.” —Julio Bocca