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On the move with Roberto Bolle

It’s almost Dickensian. At age eleven, you’re plucked from your pastoral village and moved to the big city where you live in the spare room of an old woman’s apartment, with little human contact, for the next seven years. You work every day in the city — physically demanding labor that involves not only heavy lifting, but precision, speed, and smarts. Every day you’re tested, and every day, through sweat, tears, torn ligaments, and injured pride, you must battle to be better than your peers.

That was life for Roberto Bolle, now forty and widely considered the finest ballet dancer in the world. As a preteen, he left his home in Casale Monferrato in the northwest of Italy for the formidable Teatro alla Scala in Milan. At fifteen, he was handpicked to play Tadzio in a performance of Death in Venice, when dancer Rudolf Nureyev, then near death, visited the school. In 1996, at twenty, he was named La Scala’s principal; by twenty-one, he had left to pursue his career as a free agent.

Since then he’s danced with the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada, among others. He’s performed for the Queen and a pope, collaborated with theater auteur Robert Wilson, opened the Olympic Games, and sold out the most storied opera houses from New York to Tokyo. In 2009, he became the first-ever Italian man named principal of the American Ballet Theater, a title he still holds. When the legendary Alessandra Ferri announced her retirement from ABT, she asked Bolle to partner with her for her final performances. She told the New York Times that dancing with him allowed her to move with true abandon. “He’s so strong. It’s a pleasure,” she said.

While some dancers, like Nureyev, have rebelled against ballet’s rigid strictures, Bolle’s irreverence is quieter. A leading man by any measure — he could give Henry Cavill a run for his money as Superman — his subversiveness is internal, a battle against his six-two frame, chiseled features, and courtly smile. “In the classics, like Swan Lake, you’re a prince, it’s much more set, and there’s not much room to actually add to the character. It’s better for the public than the artist,” he says. Instead, he prefers to fight his way through darker parts, portraying Onegin, or Quasimodo in Roland Petit’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

“It’s interesting playing these roles because you discover in yourself something different,” he says. “And you bring to the stage and the public something new.”

Bolle himself is something new, altering the perception of what a dancer can be outside the theater. Since 1999 he has been a goodwill ambassador for the UN, raising money for Sudan. In Italy, where he is a household name, a knight, and a major draw (think of Springsteen crossed with Peyton Manning), he appears in advertisements — for a power company — and is a brand ambassador for Dolce & Gabbana. “I have a longtime relationship with them and a friendship as well,” he says. “They’re very generous as human beings.” Earlier this year, Rizzoli published Roberto Bolle: Voyage into Beauty, featuring the kinetic, sculptural poses of the dancer against some of Italy’s most revered artistic sites.

His growing international profile is part of the reason he fell in love with New York City, a place where he can retain the independence of relative anonymity. “I do not have to wear a hat, I do not have to wear sunglasses, and I can go shopping at the supermarket anytime I want or take the subway,” he says. “When I go back to Italy, I cannot do any of these things.”

He will return to Italy this fall, with Bolle and Friends, a hugely popular world tour in which he and his handpicked company of dancers interpret favorites from the canon for ecstatic fans. The season will take him to Los Angeles, Rome, Moscow, and Pompeii, where, for the first time ever, he’ll get to dance in the ruins of the old city. “They’ve never allowed people to perform there before. It’s breathtaking,” he says. During his few free moments, Bolle — who spends eight hours each day rehearsing and conditioning — seeks respite with friends, but also in solitude. “When I really like to relax, I want to spend time by myself,” he says. “I am quite a lonely person, actually.”

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