Roberto Bolle's rise in ballet reads like a fairy tale—one in which he's the prince. At 15, he was hand-picked by Rudolf Nureyev to perform with La Scala Ballet, and by 19 he was hired into the company. Two years later, he rose to the rank of principal, and in 2009, he joined American Ballet Theatre.
"A lot of ballets remind me of Roberto," says Hee Seo, ABT principal, who danced the role of Manon in Bolle's farewell performance this summer. Although Bolle will continue to guest with La Scala, he is leaving ABT to devote more time to a festival he's building in Italy. His final role with the company had special significance: Bolle also debuted with ABT in Manon, when Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri requested him as her partner.
On his final night with the company, fans, who had flocked to the Metropolitan Opera House to see him one last time in that iconic theater, rushed to the edge of the stage even before the curtain fell. In true farewell fashion, company members threw roses, confetti rained down, and a parade of ballet greats presented him with hugs and bouquets.
Bolle developed a reputation over the years for farewell performances. Ferri asked that he be her final Romeo in 2007, and then Julie Kent followed in 2015. That same year, he was Paloma Herrera's last Albrecht in Giselle, and he even made time to travel to the Paris Opéra Ballet to partner Aurélie Dupont when she retired in Manon. "He's always been the perfect partner," Seo says.
Bolle, who has appeared as a model in fashion campaigns, has been compared to a Greek god and a movie star. Audiences in Italy, the U.S. and beyond follow his performances religiously. Since 2013, Bolle has toured and performed with other big-name ballet dancers in his own gala, Roberto Bolle and Friends, to massive sold-out theaters.
Among Bolle's peers, he's equally admired for his humble work ethic. "A lot of things he says with his body are very clear—it's almost like a textbook," Seo says. Bolle's presence at ABT "raised the bar for principal dancers," says principal Herman Cornejo, who has also appeared in Roberto Bolle and Friends. "And, as a human being, he is one of the most respectful people I've ever met."
At one moment during Bolle's final curtain call, Cornejo and his ABT peers Daniil Simkin, Cory Stearns and David Hallberg ran from the wings to embrace Bolle from all angles. "A great gentleman is leaving," Cornejo says. From the proscenium to the last row, everyone could feel the bittersweet sentiment that ABT and New York City audiences were saying goodbye to a legend, and of course, a friend.