LONDON — In an age of pyrotechnics the Italian ballet star Roberto Bolle positions himself as a danseur noble, delivering a lofty eloquence rather than leaps that are higher, beats that are faster and turns that are more numerous. With his GQ face, long limbs and tapered silhouette, he definitely looks the part. The British ballerina Darcey Bussell said recently that she sized him up at first sight as “an Italian male model, the Italian Stallion.”
Today even a danseur noble needs virtuoso credibility, and Mr. Bolle (pronounced BOHL-leh), 32, spends a lot of time outside his comfort zone. But in conversation he plays down heroics.
“Everybody has his own thing,” he said one afternoon last month at a hotel bar in High Holburn after the lunch crowd had dispersed. “There’s a certain expressive quality I have. No one can do everything better than everybody else.”
Mr. Bolle’s height (almost 6 foot 2), though a boon to long-stemmed partners like Ms. Bussell, is no advantage when it comes to the flashy stuff.
“Some things are very difficult,” he said, “and some are impossible.” He admits that Rudolf Nureyev’s “Don Quixote,” which he has done a lot, gives him trouble. By contrast Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” feels natural. Mr. Bolle has done that a lot too. “Even the difficult steps come out of the emotions and feelings of the characters,” he said. “The choreography makes sense. It has harmony.”
Mr. Bolle’s range is wide, from “Swan Lake” and “Giselle” through Balanchine’s statuesque Apollo and darting Oberon to the quantum physics of William Forsythe. A considerable cross section was on view one evening last month at Sadler’s Wells in a retrospective program for Ms. Bussell, 38, who has decided to retire this season. In Mr. Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” Mr. Bolle matched Ms. Bussell’s authoritative, aerodynamic attack. In an excerpt from Ashton’s “Sylvia,” studded with Soviet-style lifts and catches, he squired her with an assured grace that transcended athletics.
Best of all, though, was the “Farewell” duet from “Winter Dreams,” the climax of MacMillan’s one-act distillation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” When Mr. Bolle flung off his officer’s cap and coat, the audience actually laughed in astonishment at his sheer panache, but the despairing dance rhapsody with Ms. Bussell that followed was the emotional heart of the evening, aflame with dark passion.
Having danced a pas de deux with Ms. Bussell in the Ashton gala at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2004, Mr. Bolle is finally getting a proper New York debut, handpicked by his compatriot Alessandra Ferri, 44, another ballerina who is retiring this season. With American Ballet Theater, they will dance MacMillan’s full-length “Manon” and “Romeo and Juliet.” “I wanted to end on a happy note,” Ms. Ferri said in a recent e-mail message. “So I felt this would be an end for me but a beginning for him: a gift for him, which is also a gift for myself, so the occasion won’t be so sad.”
The first to spot Mr. Bolle’s star potential, apparently, was Nureyev. Mr. Bolle was 15 and studying at the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Nureyev was in town for his “Nutcracker.” Mr. Bolle was a boy on horseback (“much nicer than a mouse,” he said). Corrections for the ensemble were coming nonstop, and it was consistently Mr. Bolle who was called on to demonstrate.
“I felt embarrassed,” he said. “I was really shy, and he was Nureyev.” Soon after, Nureyev walked in on Mr. Bolle when he was alone, practicing in a studio. At Nureyev’s behest, Mr. Bolle went through some exercises and was again given very specific corrections. Even if other teachers had told him all the same things before, he silently took this attention as a sign that he would have a future as a dancer. But when Nureyev wanted to cast him in the dancing role of Tadzio, the golden boy, in Britten’s opera “Death in Venice,” La Scala refused to release him.
“It was a tragedy,” Mr. Bolle said with a broad grin. “I’d missed my chance.” Today he thinks that his teachers made the right decision: “I was too young. It would have been difficult and dangerous.”
He soon made up for lost time. He joined the ballet troupe at La Scala at 19 and became a principal at 21 after a breakout showing as Romeo. Invitations quickly followed for international guest appearances with Altynai Asylmuratova, Sylvie Guillem, Ms. Bussell and Ms. Ferri.
“Dancing with Roberto is incredibly easy,” Ms. Bussell said. “We move in sync together without having to think.”
Ms. Ferri added: “He makes you feel free and protected, like nothing will go wrong. He is always thinking about his ballerina before himself.”
By now Mr. Bolle is a star in his own right, appearing regularly in London, Paris and Japan. He has danced for Vladimir Putin at the Bolshoi, Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and the queen in Buckingham Palace (the biggest thrill, he said). Television viewers in astronomical numbers caught Mr. Bolle on his own, headlining the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
A good-will ambassador for Unicef since 1999, he mounted a text-message campaign at the games that raised half a million euros (now $675,000) for relief in Sudan. Last year, in his first visit to the field, he delivered the check in person and visited schools and hospitals.
“It was a real shock,” Mr. Bolle said. “The country has been devastated by civil war for 20 years. We all sort of know from TV, but to be in that reality with people who have nothing, that changes you deeply. It resets your values.”
Mr. Bolle’s old acquaintance Nureyev cultivated a lifestyle as ostentatious as his persona. Mr. Bolle keeps things simple.
“For now,” he said, “my career is my life.” He admires Ms. Bussell and Ms. Ferri, he added, for having the “courage to leave the stage at the right time, without compromises.”
As to his future, he thinks he will want to coach. “Or maybe to direct a dance company, at La Scala perhaps. I think I’ve gained good experience abroad and that I can do something for my country. That’s it. We’ll see.”