Bocca's Farewell in "Manon"

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 21 matinee and June 22, 2006

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006, Michael Popkin

It was probably as close to a World Cup soccer atmosphere as a ballet performance can get when Julio Bocca ended his illustrious, 20-year ABT career on Thursday, dancing an intensely heartfelt performance of Kenneth Macmillan’s “Manon” with his longtime partner Alessandra Ferri. Indeed, towards the end of the fervent ovations that lasted for fifteen minutes, someone tossed an Argentine flag to the exhausted but exhilarated Bocca, who draped it over his shoulders and seemed to embrace the admiring throngs with his outstretched arms. This was after he had motioned, midway through the curtain calls, for someone to hand him a beer (presumably the Argentine brand he mentioned, in one of the many interviews he gave in recent weeks, keeping handy in his dressing room). It added to the enthusiastic, festive nature of the extended ovation — as though he was toasting the audience and his fellow dancers, while also making clear he was enjoying the prospects of a life released from the intense discipline of classical ballet.

Before the performance began, the packed Metropolitan Opera House, which included a substantial Argentinean contingent as well as everyone from Isabella Rossellini to many of Bocca’s stellar ballet contemporaries, throbbed with the kind of anticipation that used to be a regular part of the atmosphere in an earlier ballet era. And as the evening marked the end of the Ferri-Bocca partnership, it became a nostalgic celebration of that kind of rare, steady pairing that also used to be more common in that bygone period. Yes, Ferri’s ABT appearances have been intermittent in recent seasons, and both dancers had pared back their repertory, but they have continued to sustain that kind of innate communication and complete trust that make a partnership endure and thrive. The chemistry has deepened as they developed into mature artists, both at ease with blending dramatic details with technical feats into seamless, persuasive portrayals.

Not having seen Ferri dance for a while, I was impressed at her high level of technique and the ease with which she maintained a level of total commitment and intensity throughout the large and demanding title role of “Manon.” Certainly, she has always been a natural Macmillan dancer, ever since she first captivated New York audiences in “Mayerling” in the early 1980s. Her Manon is convincingly girlish in the opening scene, fascinated if somewhat perplexed by all the activity around her, sensing a new, if not completely comfortable kind of power from the reactions of various men to her dewy charms.

Despite the emotions of the evening and the inevitable sustained ovation that greeted his quiet entrance as Des Grieux, his head buried in a book, Bocca created a riveting portrayal form the start. Seated at a table stage right while various courtesans and gentlemen amused themselves, he glanced up once only to shake his head dismissively, before being completely captivated once he got a good look at Manon. His first solo, full of melting arabesques and meticulous yet eloquent arms gestures, made it clear this young students was baring his heart and soul to her. While Bocca is certainly not a dancer in the mold of Anthony Dowell, for whose amazing plastique and fluid line the role was designed, he has found his own persuasive approach, making this difficult solo transcend its trickiness to become pure expression.

And his partnering! The various, intricate duets that chart the infatuation, conflict and desperation through which their relationship progresses communicated their full quota (and them some) of heedless passion on this occasion, with Ferri able to throw herself into their twists and dives with complete abandon, confident that Bocca was ready for anything. Bocca’s dramatic focus made Des Grieux’s problematic presence in the protracted, busy first scene of act two, during which his character remains on the fringes, always an observer, as vivid as possible. One could sense how helplessly drawn he was to Manon, even as he registered disdain for the amoral, superficial world into which she had basically sold herself.

With Ferri and Bocca in the leads, the many dramatic and structural parallels between this ballet and Macmillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” were heightened. Both get bogged down with bland filler but reassert their dramatic focus in the duets. Bocca truly transformed himself for his appearance in the third act; when he staggered off the boat in Louisiana behind the shaky, bedraggled Ferri you really sensed that he too had suffered through a tortuous journey. Their final, desperate duet transcended the sack-of-potatoes way in which Macmillan likes to have limp women tossed around. The uninterrupted series of degradations that to which Manon been subjected had clearly worn her down, and her agonized lover was helpless to offer any relief, and could only bear witness to her final moments. Coming after the poorly staged, lengthy series of hallucinations reliving earlier scenes that swirl behind the swampy scenery as the lovers lie writhing downstage, it’s a less emotionally grabbing finale than the tomb scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” but on this night it achieved a knockout punch.

Once the curtain fell, the highly emotional tone of the farewell festivities was evident early on. During the usual full-cast bows, when Ferri brought conductor Charles Barker out from the wings, he bounded onstage toward Bocca and wrapped him in a fervent hug. After Bocca and Ferri, separately and together, took several bows in front of the curtains, they opened again for the full treatment: flowers galore, a cascade of large glittering confetti, and individual bouquets and embraces from dancers spanning ABT’s past four decades whose time with the company overlapped with Bocca: Cynthia Gregory, Martine van Hamel, Robert Hill, Kathleen Moore, Cheryl Yeager, Ethan Brown, Christine Dunham and Ashley Tuttle. Bocca’s contemporary and NYCB counterpart Damian Woetzel was also among the celebrants, along with Joaquin de Luz, and all the current ABT principals. As almost no one in the audience made a move to depart, and the cheering continued, Marcelo Gomes and David Hallberg hoisted Bocca onto their shoulders, hero style, and helped lead the cheers. Eventually the curtains closed, so that Bocca could make repeated, and increasingly exuberant, appearances in front of it, and in the midst of those, someone tossed him the flag. For that evening, he was everyone’s hero.

At the Wednesday matinee, Vladimir Malakhov’s Des Grieux seemed hardly mussed or traumatized by his journey, and his hollow-eyed misery during the ballet was mostly one-note. He and Diana Vishneva, however, do make an intriguing partnership — both are willowy and fluid in their phrasing. Her Manon didn’t start form quite the state of girlish innocence that Ferri projected, but she did make you sense the purity of her passion for Des Grieux, and the unease she felt at turning sexual attraction into a bargaining chip with others. Their performance had its captivating moments, but they could not make up for the ballet’s longueurs.

Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView