For 20 years, American Ballet Theatre star Julio Bocca stole audiences' hearts: His fans could be found beaming — then sobbing profusely while watching him in "Romeo and Juliet," especially when he danced with the unmatchable Alessandra Ferri as Juliet.

In 2007, he retired and returned home to Argentina, having conquered New York as a breakout Latin American star.

Now, as artistic director of Uruguay's national ballet company, he has returned to New York for the week to help judge the annual ballet competition Youth America Grand Prix, which regularly anoints new ballet stars. He also gets to sit back while his friends and former colleagues take the stage in a ballet tribute to him on Friday, April 14.

Prior to the week's festivities, Dance.com caught up with Bocca at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he performed at the Metropolitan Opera House for ABT and where he will be honored at the David H. Koch Theatre.

Dance.com: Former Uruguay president José Mujica asked you to run the country's national ballet. How did that happen?

Julio Bocca: "In 2007, I went on holiday in Uruguay. Then I decided to move there. If I walk on the street, people recognize me, but they're not jumping on me like in Buenos Aires. There, I could not go to the supermarket or have a normal life.

I stayed for a year and half doing nothing. It went so fast. Then I was feeling like I am too young to do nothing! That's when I started to judge competitions and teach. Then he invited me. But I said, it has to be my rules."

Julio Bocca in front of posters for YAGP's tribute to him. Pia Catton

Like what?

"The dancers have one-year contracts. Before, they had a job for life."

What do you see from a new generation of ballet dancers?

"I am learning. They don't have the focus that we had, because of phones. And I'm not complaining. But I remember my teacher Willie Burmann: He said things, and I was doing it. I was not starting to ask things or complain — and now it is a whole conversation for one correction. I have to say, that makes me crazy."

The late critic Clive Barnes used to say that dancers dance their personalities. Was that true for you onstage?

"What we had [in my] time was personality. Each one was totally different, and we could connect to each as a person, not a dancer. At least, I did it. And from the people I danced with, I received that.

In the beginning, when you are young, you are just trying to do all the big steps without thinking really. But that is also nice, because you are playing. It's like a game."

What do you look for in judging and hiring dancers?

"I look for personality first. How they present themselves — and then all the details of a classic dancer. How you present is the first impression the audience has. Nobody just walks on stage and it's like 'wow.'"

How does it feel to be in New York?

On the roof of my hotel, I had a glass of champagne. I was so emotional. I almost started crying just to remember all this.

I always say ABT is my home. It is where I learned so many things. The audience was always kind and grateful. I miss New York. I hope I can come and work here more.

Julio Bocca danced for 20 years with American Ballet Theatre.Courtesy of Youth America Grand Prix