Global Applause: Julio Bocca on Audiences Worldwide

October 29, 2008

Before his retirement last December, ballet superstar Julio Bocca toured the world as a principal with American Ballet Theatre, as a guest artist with some of ballet’s most celebrated companies, and as the artistic director and star of BoccaTango.

You learn that audiences respond to what the artist onstage gives them. With me, whether I was dancing with my own company, BoccaTango, or in Swan Lake, audiences have always shown me love and respect. The way they express themselves may be different depending on the country, but the warmth has been there.

If Russian audiences like you, for instance, they start applauding rhythmically. Sometimes in the middle of the coda, when the fouettés or grand pirouettes come, they clap along with the music while you dance. In Spain, if audiences really like what you do, they applaud like in a tanguillo (flamenco clapping). In New York City, audiences applaud as soon as you make your entrance, and sometimes they scream as well.

In Japan they applaud a lot, very evenly, but they don’t shout at all. They are very respectful. They never interrupt by applauding in the middle of a performance. There’s an incredible silence throughout the show. It sounds as if there’s nobody in the house. Not a noise of paper rustling—nothing. And all theaters are enormous and full of people. Total silence until the end, and then everybody applauds at once.

Of course, Argentine audiences are amongst the best in the world. Dancers that come to perform in Buenos Aires appreciate their euphoria, their screams. When a performance ends they start shouting together, like soccer fans at a stadium: “Olé, olé, olé, Juliooo, Juliooo!” Or, “Una mas y no jodemos mas. (Do one more, and we won’t bug you anymore.)”

Sometimes you get more than applause. People like throwing flowers onstage all over the world. I also got letters and teddy bears. The first time I went to Japan, fans waited at the stage door with presents, from a handkerchief to a little bottle of sake. I remember once getting a Walkman.

Of course, nationality isn’t the only factor. Usually at gala performances, everybody dresses so elegantly and wears so many jewels that they cannot applaud. Sometimes audiences can be cold and distant. I remember the shortest applause in my personal history, in Barcelona in the 1980s with Ballet Nacional de España. We’d just finished dancing a pas de deux, catching our breath in the wings before going back on stage for the bows, and they stopped applauding as soon as we left, so we didn’t go back. For me it was terrible. The next day I had some press interviews and I stated: “Barcelona audiences stink.” Actually, what I said was a little worse. (That was my temper at that time; I was younger.) The phrase was published in papers all around the region and I thought: “They won’t accept me here anymore.” Nevertheless, audiences applauded much longer at my next Barcelona performance.

Sometimes experiences with the audience can make you forget about applause. Recently, when I performed at the Argentine beach town of Mar de Ajó on an outdoors stage, it was announced through the speakers that a child was missing. Apparently his father misunderstood the announcement and came onstage to look for the child while I was dancing. I was at the top of a ladder during my solo, and I saw him walking below, and a couple of people running after him. I thought, “It will be OK as long as he doesn’t push the ladder over and make me fall.”

Sometimes a technician or a cleaning person might think that the back curtain is closed and cross the stage by mistake, and everybody sees them walking while you dance. Or a cat wanders onstage—that’s happened. Or if you are performing at a castle in Europe, one or two bats might fly by. Those things are part of performing—special audiences.

But curtain calls are the best of all. At my farewell in New York City with ABT, we had to stay onstage bowing for 25 minutes. In St. Petersburg they had to bring down the security curtain, because people would not leave the theater.

In Buenos Aires, at my last performance before my retirement, I bowed for 20 minutes. Everything was magical that night: There was an incredible full moon on the sky, the weather was crystal clear. There were 300,000 people in total silence while I was dancing, and then at the end they exploded in screams. I felt this extraordinary cluster of emotions; those were two of the most absolutely marvelous hours of my life.