I certainly wasn't the only one to have doubts when Roberto Bolle announced his intention to climb onto Béjart's red table. Facebook was abuzz with comments from puzzled ballet fans who couldn't see him as La Mélodie. Even now, after his run of performances of Boléro, many hold on to that view.
How delighted I was to be proved wrong (not that I had voiced my doubts, I may add) as I was swept away by the escalating passion of Ravel's Spanish dance and Bolle's dancing of Béjart's choreography.
He is not as sensual and lithe as others — Luciana Savignano, Mathias Heymann — but his is an interpretation based on strength and virility: less feminine curves and more macho force. He is a warrior, a hero, a statue. It is a long way from Jorge Donn's sexually ambiguous performance.
Bolle's physique helps. At 1.87 metres (nearly 6ft 2in) on the waist-high platform, he dominates the stage. Béjart eloquently puts the dancer at the apex of a pyramid which descends to the Rhythm (those who dance around the Melody), and then further down to those sitting on chairs on the periphery. The dancers at his feet are well-honed athletes too, but Bolle's proportions are rare — as Darcy Bussell said, “…an Italian male model, an Italian Stallion” — topped off with his “GQ face”, according to The New York Times. It all adds to the performance. Melody is an idol after all.
Over the years, Bolle's name has become linked not only with his stage work, but with his bare-chested magazine spreads, advertising campaigns and TV appearances. He doesn't mind being treated as a sex symbol, and shows boyish glee when complimented on his abs. Well, he's worked hard for them. His performances attract a feminine and gay crowd that is unique at La Scala. He is a completely different dancer to Rudolf Nureyev, but the Russian dancer, with his wide-ranging celebrity, also pulled in a non-ballet crowd which, I suppose, must be a good thing.
So, in a way, who better to place on that round table than Roberto Bolle, surrounded and adored, like Marilyn Monroe encircled by men proffering diamonds. Again, like Nureyev, he can't leave all that popular fame at the stage door; it accompanies him continually, hovering around him like an aureole. Other excellent dancers, less well-known, must win this from the audience during their brief 15-minutes on stage — it's a harder battle.
The flip side is that there are those who disapprove of his TV appearances and Bolle and Friends mega-galas, just like Luciano Pavarotti was looked down on for his Three Tenors appearances (though, curiously, Placido Domingo largely escaped from criticism). It's the same with Cecilia Bartoli (too high up the charts and too Photoshopped) or Carla Fracci (suffocating a generation of dancers by dancing well beyond middle age). We cheer the underdog: for poor Leyla Gencer whose recording career was stifled by Monserrat Caballé; or Svetlana Beriosova relegated to the second casts because of Margot Fonteyn's dominating presence. It can be tricky keeping a firm grip on objectivity.
The disapprovers have daggers drawn before the curtain opens, and detest the presence of the smartphone crowd, waiting for their moment to start taking photos and videos of the curtain calls. These people will be almost impossible to win over, but to misquote Abraham Lincoln: “You cannot please all the people all the time.”
Melody's climax, as some of the semi-naked Rhythm dancers invade the red table, was greeted by equally orgasmic screams from the audience and lengthy applause. For me, Roberto Bolle was thoroughly convincing in ‘his' Boléro. I believe Béjart would have been delighted.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.