Today we are posting a very special Hall of Fame episode.
A few days ago, we had the immense pleasure of meeting with a truly exceptional former Academy student, Jacopo Tissi, who has just been named Principal Dancer of the Corps de Ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre. He was here in Milan to dance in La Bayadère at Teatro alla Scala alongside étoile Svetlana Zakharova and managed to find time to come back to “his” Ballet School to meet the current students.
Moderator of the gathering, which also included Ballet School Director Frédéric Olivieri and the instructors Paolo Vismara and Maurizio Vanadia, was Francesca Pedroni, filmmaker, dance critic/historian, and she too a Ballet School instructor. The students at the gathering were able to put their questions to Jacopo.
We offer you the full transcript of the interview: something to read while awaiting the online presentation of the Ballet School on Thursday, February 24 at 6pm (CET). Don’t miss it! You can register by clicking here…
And don’t forget to apply to the Ballet School!
Francesca Pedroni: For some time now the La Scala Academy has featured a digital space titled “Hall of Fame” dedicated to outstanding former students. Today we are here with an extraordinary talent: not only is he the first Italian dancer to join one of the most hallowed companies in world ballet but he had just been named Principal Dancer. This is a point of pride for our school as well and it is wonderful to have him here at the La Scala Academy Ballet School, right where it all started.
I remember well when you were still a boy and we shot an episode of “Talenti”, a television series produced by Classica HD in collaboration with the Bracco Foundation, with you and your family, in your home near Pavia. So this is a good place to start, because there are many young people attending the Ballet School who live outside of Milan, as you did. I have read many interviews where you pointed out the importance of your family, who were always at your side.
What can you tell us about this?
I lived in the province of Pavia and so I had to decide whether to stay at home with my parents or move to Milan. They offered to take me to school and so I stayed with them for the entire program. I am of course very grateful to them because it was certainly not an easy thing to take their son to Milan every day while juggling various work commitments and schedules. Having their support on a daily basis was certainly an enormous help.
In my course there were kids who came from much more distant cities. I remember how hard it was for them to be so far away from home, alone, at such a young age. But in the class they were able to find people who became their second family. It was like that for me too. Being together every day for eight years can only lead to very strong bonds; our mutual support during the course was very important.
Francesca Pedroni: You were named Principal Dancer on December 31 at the end of a performance of The Nutcracker with choreography by Grigorovich, a ballet you have danced in quite a lot, also when you were at the Academy, in the version by maestro Olivieri. Can you tell us what this ballet means to you? It’s one that is always on the calendars of our students, this year as well: after a two-year hiatus, The Nucracker was staged at Teatro Strehler.
I must say that I am quite fond of The Nutcracker. I owe my earliest memories of professional experiences at the Academy to it. Performing it on stage was always a special event, because it meant learning how to relate to the audience at a young age; being able to dance at that level was a great opportunity because it allows you to understand what day-to-day professional life will be like.
I was in my seventh year of the school when I debuted in this ballet. I danced the pas-de-deux in the Second Act. In the eighth year I had the chance to dance other versions. And now at the Bolshoi, the one by Grigorovich. Wonderful!
Frédéric Olivieri: The appointment came after the performance with the entire company present?
Not all of them were there, partly because it was an evening performance, but I was overjoyed that my parents could be there: I had always hoped they would be and so I was really thrilled.
Paola Vismara: Did you have some hint or was it a total surprise?
Actually, there was something in the air. I knew that day might turn out to be decisive; the December 31 show in Moscow is a big event. It was an amazing thrill.
Francesca Pedroni: I mention to the young students that the title of Primo Ballerino that you had before here in Italy corresponds to Leading Soloist at the Bolshoi, whereas your current title, Principal Dancer, corresponds to our Étoile.
Now you are back at La Scala to dance in La Bayadère as Solor with Svetlana Zakharova, Étoile of the Bolshoi and of Teatro alla Scala. The first time you danced with her was right here at La Scala in Sleeping Beauty. Then you met up again at the Bolshoi. You posted some videos on Instagram of you two having fun in some spirited dances.
Tell us a little about Svetlana Zakharova…
I met Svetlana in 2015 when I danced with her in Sleeping Beauty. It was a momentous experience for me to be able to dance with a ballerina of her caliber. Joining her again at the Bolshoi was a great honor and a great joy. We have danced together on many occasions, in major titles and also in new choreographies.
Svetlana has been a fundamental figure in my growth as a professional and as a human being. She is not just an outstanding ballerina, a real professional, an exceptional and unique talent, she exemplifies an attitude toward work embodying uncompromising rigor and constant effort in the quest for perfection. And on the human side, we have become friends, which adds so much more.
Francesca Pedroni: Can you tell us about your path in Russia since 2017?
It was not easy at first. Russia is a very different country from Italy. I knew a little Russian, but not enough to speak fluently. So entering that theatre, the temple of ballet, and having to start anew, pretty much from zero, was not at all easy—but it was also quite stimulating. The enthusiasm at having arrived there and the desire to start a new life in that theatre helped me a great deal.
Olivieri: And so how is it being back here at the Ballet School after your years away?
Oh, it’s really wonderful, I have so many memories, different moments starting from the first year and then my development, the diploma, and the performances… it’s a beautiful feeling.
Female student: What sort of technical and artistic differences have you found [at the Bolshoi] with respect to the Academy Ballet School?
After completing school and starting to work in a theatre you go on developing, learning, and working every day. In that sense the work never ends. In Russia we dance a certain sort of repertoire, with a fairly distinctive style, and the system works well: many of the instructors are former principal dancers in the Bolshoi dance company. There is a real passing of the baton, a tradition that goes on, passed down from generation to generation.
When I joined the company, I worked very hard. I had ten debuts in the first season alone! I was always there working in the rehearsal room, both on interpretation and technique, becoming acquainted with and absorbing this style, which is a real hallmark of the Bolshoi.
Francesca Pedroni: Since we’ve mentioned technique, I wanted to ask you this. You are here to dance in Nureyev’s version of La Bayadère, a title you danced also in 2018 with the Bolshoi company, but in Grigorovich’s version. Now you are back with the same company and with Svetlana, who is a sort of link between the Bolshoi and La Scala. What are the main differences [between the two choreographies]? What, as a protagonist, do you feel is different in the style, technique, as well as in the overall structure of the ballet?
On the level of choreography, Nureyev stayed close to Petipa’s original choreography for the debut in Saint Petersburg, but his own special touch is felt in many of the combinations of steps. There are many steps in the variations, there is a step, a movement, for every note, with very tightly worked combinations. I think his complicated choreography was his way of expressing emotions and a certain sort of dance, where every single note is filled with a movement. He also greatly accentuated the oriental setting, also in terms of costumes. Nureyev had a particular taste and predilection for costumes, I think that accentuating this aspect of La Bayadère is something that adds value.
Francesca Pedroni: Solor’s variation, before The Kingdom of the Shades, is very beautiful….
In Grigorovich’s version, this entrance—which is at the beginning of the act—is different, more actorish, with fewer combinations of steps. Nureyev’s, on the other hand, is one long variation from the initial entrance all the way to the end.
Francesca Pedroni: Through these steps, note by note, through an extremely danced choreography, more danced than others, you give us the soul of the character. And then in The Kingdom of Shades, there is the very difficult part with the veil. What are the differences between the choreographies you have danced?
In Nureyev’s version, Solor interprets the first part of the variation together with Nikiya, which is different from what happens in Grigorovich’s version.
The variation with the veil is certainly very difficult. Your timing has to be very good, you have to be very careful about coordination, which requires excellent precision throughout: how you have to hold the veil, at the right distance, so that the ballerina can easily keep it aloft. These are steps that you have to study thoroughly, that are very demanding in terms of practice.
Male student: How did you do during the lockdown and then when things started up again?
When the world came to a halt in February and March 2020 it was a real shock. Being used to daily practice, constant movement, suddenly having everything come to a stop was not at all easy to deal with. After the first few days of disorientation, I realized that I could also dedicate my time to something else, expand my horizons. But I have to say, luckily, the lockdown didn’t last very long in Moscow and we were soon able to go back to performing on stage. In this respect we were very fortunate.
Female student: What was the most difficult thing in transitioning from the Academy to the theatre?
You notice the difference, even if every day always begins at the barre, as before. But you get into a different system and the day is composed of engagements, a different relationship with the ballet masters. There are new responsibilities, the stage, the new system, meeting new people… I have always been excited by changes and by having new things to work on. I have always been very willing to begin something new, and so I did not have any particular difficulty in the transition.
Paola Vismara: From the technical point of view, and in terms of personal preparation, did you have any difficulty or was quite simple for you, including your integration into the new company? Did you immediately feel confident undertaking this new path?
When you join the company you begin a serious process of self-discipline—even though in Moscow there is a person who guides you for specific roles—where you begin to grow and walk on your own two feet. You progressively become more aware of your own body and how to assess and allocate your energy, what to focus on, and how to relate to the people who work with you.
And it is essential that you do this process on your own, so you understand where you are going and how you are progressing. For a dancer, time is the most precious thing. So you have to make the most of every moment in a performance, in a role, so you can continue to grow. For that matter, you’re not the only one, many other fellow dancers in the company are cultivating your same aspirations. You have to be determined.
Paola Vismara: What is the most important character trait in all of this?
Every artist, every dancer, is different. Some already have specific physical qualities, perhaps right from the beginning, others develop them over time. But apart from the technical abilities, there are also inner capabilities that you have to develop, capabilities that are highly valuable when you begin to work. It’s also a mental thing, being conscious of your work, of what you are facing and embracing, understanding the importance of constantly boosting your professional level. You have to mature in terms of character, in a positive sense.
Francesca Pedroni: You have also danced new roles. I am thinking of Erik Bruhn in Boy, the ballet dedicated to Nureyev; Capel in the ballet dedicated to Coco Chanel; Vronsky in Anna Karenina, choreographed by Neumeier. How much has each role challenged you, even the one that was most unlike you but still gave you something? Have you discovered something new in roles that you didn’t think you would be dancing?
Let’s say that going onward in one’s career, every dancer feels they belong more to one category of characters than another. Maybe you feel more affinity with a lyric or heroic or characterful role. But you still might find yourself confronting a role you didn’t expect or never thought you should or could handle, something with a different tone. In cases like this, as soon as you start working to get into this new character, you find it becomes more and more a part of you and that it can add something to your artistic stock, help you grow further.
When you approach an iconic role such as Erik Bruhn, it is essential to study, learn, read. Nowadays, with the Internet, you can see videos, documentaries, and photos and read documents and personal accounts. This really feeds your knowledge and inspiration. And this is true of art generally: a painting or a statue representing a particular pose can be a source of personal inspiration. Expanding your awareness in this sense helps expand your eloquence in other spheres.
Male student: About art in general (painting, photography…), in what way do you think that dance differs from other artforms? Was there something in particular that led you to choose dance?
Dance embraces a lot of things. It combines movement, harmony, and music into a whole where everything interrelates in a harmonious and virtuous equilibrium. Dance allows you to become another person and interpret stories that are different each time. And even if you have your own well defined rules growing out of your own personal code of conduct, it allows you to express your art through the interpretation of various characters, it allows you to put all that to the test. And then dance is all about the atmosphere of the stage, something truly unique.
Paola Vismara: What advice would you give to these young people who are about to graduate?
I think it is very important to pay attention to the instructors, to get the most out of each and every suggestion or correction. This will continue in your professional career: when you are working with a choreographer or ballet master it is essential that you get every detail so you can push your limits and improve. I also think it is crucial to set well defined, concrete daily goals, even small ones: “that point in that variation, tomorrow I am going to do it perfectly”, and so on. This is what it means to develop as an artist, continuing to expand your stock of knowledge, in all directions.
Andrea (male student): What do you feel was the most important thing you learned during your period of study with maestro Vanadia?
Maestro Vanadia always pushed us to perform increasingly difficult steps, getting us to attempt things that we didn’t think we could do, that seemed impossibly beyond our grasp. This was a great source of added enthusiasm for us. Being able to interpret such a demanding repertoire, with difficult combinations, at a young age, putting ourselves to the test every day, it only made us more confident and aware.
Olivieri: On a more humorous note. I seem to remember that you had quite a talent for aping your instructors…
OK, I admit it! I also dared imitate you, Maestro, but only in the last year, after getting my diploma.
Francesca Pedroni thanks Jacopo and the students for the wonderful exchange.
Maestro Olivieri concludes:
I remember Jacopo when he was still a boy. His talent was immediately evident during the lessons: that added flame, a spark that makes all the difference. A flame that some develop immediately, others later.
So, my young dancers, I ask you to take Jacopo’s words to heart, the deep and insightful things he has shared. They are the words of a young man who, with all the lofty achievements he has under his belt, still maintains a rigor and humility that make him truly special. He has had very little time in these days and yet, as soon as I called him, he immediately agreed to come and talk with us today. This means that our bond will never weaken; I am very happy and thankful for this.
Thank you Jacopo, and all the best!
Header photo: Jacopo Tissi and Elena Bottaro in Sleeping Beauty, Gala for the 200th anniversary of the Ballet School, Teatro alla Scala. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli © Accademia Teatro alla Scala
Text photo: Jacopo Tissi in Paquita, Piccolo Teatro Strehler. Photo: Clarissa Lapolla © Accademia Teatro alla Scala