I know I gave up my childhood, adolescence and youth, and I am also aware that those times will never come back.
I was a soldier, always on the march. But I am not one of those soldiers who wrote letters from the front full of regret or nostalgia. I chose my destiny and went towards my future, with clear-headedness, perseverance, and determination.
Devoting myself to dance in an all-embracing way has meant not being demoralised by setbacks and not changing my goal when everything seemed to say that I should. We are human beings: we have ups and downs. To survive the latter, I had to prepare myself mentally. In my job, taking care of your body is essential, but without a brain, you get nowhere.
[Dance] has allowed me to give my best to what is wonderful, illuminating, and sacred about this art. I have always seen it as something that goes beyond my own person and in return it has given me beauty, harmony and inner richness. It has shaped my sensitivity. If I had not been a dancer going through such intense interpretative, emotional and physical experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to work in such close contact with myself both on a human and emotional level.
I imitated dance moves I saw on TV shows and dreamed of studying and enrolling in a real school. Not a day passed in that two-storey house with a vegetable garden in Trino Vercellese that I didn’t ask for my ideal gift: to enrol in a dancing school. My parents were hesitant thinking it was just a whim and not a real desire, and that with scouts, piano lessons, and swimming, my days were already full enough.
My first school show was at Cinema Orsa in Trino when I was seven. I’d been preparing for weeks, but halfway through the performance my shoe flew off. It was like a film in slow motion, and I was paralysed with terror and panic. It felt like the world had ended. It’s a feeling that dancers know well: you fall, you make mistakes. But those who do my job know that there is no such thing as a fall from which you cannot get back up. Right from the beginning, you face up to dealing with mistakes, knowing that every aspect of this art is full of danger, and everything can end at any moment.
There is something that surrounds us that goes beyond passion and talent, and that’s chance. You rehearse for months in the studio, and then suddenly you trip. One fall can change the course of a career. To be a dancer takes humility, a sense of adventure, and the ability to bear loneliness. Dance encourages you to improve both your body and spirit. It gives you dreams and magic. But like everything, there is a price.
Loneliness has been a constant companion. I found myself surrounded by it and had to deal with it. I’m quite solitary by nature, but at the beginning, when I was travelling to perform challenging roles for which I felt inadequate, it was hard to be alone. Then, when I was about twenty-seven, everything changed and I started to enjoy solitude for what it is: not a limitation, but a victory, a type of freedom. It was like having a license for absolute concentration. I could wander around the various cities, choose how to fill my time, leave an unpacked suitcase for weeks without anyone saying, “Roberto, tidy up.”
After two days, wherever I am, I create the most devastating chaos with jumpers piled up on chairs, trousers on the floor, dishes in the sink. It’s really embarrassing.
I’ve always lived alone from when I was 12, and I don’t remember a really tidy room. My mother rented my first room in Milan from an elderly lady with whom I didn’t really have any relationship. When I wasn’t eating at La Scala’s canteen, I was warming up the things my mother had prepared for me to get through the week.
Before my audition [for La Scala’s School] I told my mother all the doubts I had. I told her that I wasn’t going to try to do my best both on the train as we set off for Milan and then again at La Scala. It seemed very early for me to break away from my family. I just wanted to dance, but I didn’t understand the importance of doing it so far away from home. I did the audition anyway and then we went back to Trino. For a few weeks we forgot about that discussion.
Then one day the postman rang and out of his bag came the letter of admission to the Accademia della Scala. It was incredible. I still get excited thinking of that moment. It was like a scene from Billy Elliot. The postman arriving, reading those succinct few lines telling me that I had made it, and then realising that my life had suddenly changed.
My whole family [was behind me] but my mother was key. I made up my mind to accept thanks to her. She gave me the freedom to choose and to let me give up at any moment if it proved too much, but she helped me see the adventure from a different perspective.
So from one day to the next my familiar home comforts were exchanged for a rigorous and competitive environment. I had a few crises. I used to cry as I felt an emotional void, and I was homesick. More than once I was on the verge of taking a train back, but I resisted the impulse. Staying in Milan was important and luckily I understood that and saw the results it was having.
At the end of a stretching session [Rudolf Nureyev] suddenly appeared, like an apparition. He said, “Show me what you can do.” I was 15 years old and I could hardly believe it was true, but I was breathless and also there was the temptation to run away at once. I overcame that and went to the barre. I was sweaty and exhausted, and I just wanted it all to end as soon as possible. When I finished, I bent down to pick up my bag, but he stopped me. He gave me some advice on posture and asked me to start again. A few days later I jumped for joy when Nureyev’s team contacted me to offer me the role of Tadzio in Death in Venice, which they were staging in the Arena di Verona with choreography by Flemming Flindt.
However, the School’s management didn’t permit me to go because they thought I was not ready for such a leap in the dark. I was in despair, thinking that such an opportunity would never come my way again. It was hard to understand that there were good reasons behind that refusal. The meeting with Nureyev, however, somehow changed my life. When I think back, it seems like destiny had touched me.
I have always guarded my life beyond the stage, after the curtain comes down. It is essential for me: it is personal and absolutely private. I’m not saying that it has to be like that for everyone, but for me that’s how it is. Of course, everyone is free to talk about their loves and sexuality, but it’s not in my nature and it never will be. I’ve always tried to distinguish between my private self and my public persona, and I intend to continue to do so.
My privacy is as valuable as everyone’s and I don’t think any more words are needed. I have always spoken about dance, but I don’t feel I have to speak about anything else or make any revelations. There have been violations of privacy, violations that I have always fought against, which often border on invasion and exploitation. I have always considered it arbitrary and dishonest; there have even been stolen photographs. There is morbid curiosity which does no one any good and is not what people and newspapers should be looking for from me. I think I have certain values that those who appreciate them should try to enjoy that without looking for anything else.
I feel the weight of responsibility for what I have done and do every day, and for this reason I try to pay great attention to my choices and actions. I know that all eyes are on me and that I am a role model for many young people. I try to do my best and tell those who want to get involved in dance that there is no other way to success than through hard work, sacrifice and sweat. I have never liked shortcuts. I have never believed in them.
I am not narcissistic. On the other hand, I am always very focused on myself, on what I do and on my projects, and so I risk being egocentric. My work is an indispensable part of me and I know that this, in a relationship or friendship, is an aspect that is difficult to take in and understand, also because I give the utmost importance to that part of me. To be honest, the path I have decided to take is more important to me than everything else, and that’s a difficult pact for anyone to accept.
I know that I have to give my all and since I can’t give it in every area of my life, everything else has to take a step back. Unfortunately, those who don’t understand this can only be part of my life in a marginal way.
I have always pursued perfection, but I have never been obsessive. In the beginning I was less forgiving than I am now, but after a few years I started to forgive myself and to enjoy the results of all my work with more serenity. The applause and the satisfaction that it gave me in the past did not fully gratify me, so I realise that I have matured a lot when I look back. I was also very fortunate.
The ideal conditions to emerge sometimes just happen and sometimes you have to find them. Incredible things have happened to me without my looking for them, just because I was in the right place at the right time.
I am now where I wanted to be many years ago. I have always been honest and loyal to others and in return I have received honesty and loyalty. If I look at myself I see a 45-year-old man who feels fulfilled, serene, happy and mature both as an artist and as a man.
But I always leave a space for immaturity, even childishness, and from time to time I just let myself go because I find it consoling. You know what? If you think about it, it’s the most precious space for dancing that I have.
Roberto Bolle was talking to Malcom Pagani for Vanity Fair Italia.
Photos: Boléro with Roberto Bolle, by Brescia e Amisano Teatro alla Scala, 2019