Three years ago, Jacopo Tissi left La Scala to join the Bolshoi Company in Moscow. Makhar Vaziev, the Company's current director, was previously the director at La Scala and had seen Tissi's work. It was Vaziev (on having to find a substitute for Sergei Polunin, who was himself a substitute for David Hallberg), who chose the young corps de ballet dancer to partner Svetlana Zakharova on the opening night of Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty.
Before the summer, Tissi was dancing again with Zakharova when he created the role of Boy Capel, Coco Chanel's lover and muse, in the Bolshoi's new one-act ballet Gabrielle Chanel, with Zakharova as the French fashion designer. However, more frequently he dances with the Bolshoi's youngest star, Alena Kovaleva. He was partnered with her in July 2017 at New York's Lincoln Center for the Jewels Golden Anniversary Celebration when Emeralds was danced by the Paris Opera Ballet, Rubies by the New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi presented Diamonds, with Kovaleva and Tissi as the principal couple. In September 2018 they were again together when the Bolshoi Ballet brought La Bayadère to La Scala, and in August of this year they danced in Swan Lake during the Bolshoi's three-week stay at the Royal Opera House.
That leap in the dark three years ago seems to have paid off?
Yes, it was an important decision, but one I'm pleased about.
How have you changed as a dancer and as a person training, living and performing in Moscow?
I have grown up so much both as a person and in my dancing. My experience of life in Moscow was full of new situations, new ways of seeing things, and I was encountering things that I just didn't know. It certainly wasn't easy, but it has brought me great rewards, such as learning to speak Russian. Today I feel well integrated both in daily life and in the life of the theatre where I have been very warmly welcomed.
These years at the Bolshoi have been a fundamental part of my artistic growth, teaching me so much and giving me many great opportunities. Two key figures for me are my teacher Alexander Vetrov and my director, Makhar Vaziev. Every day I feel lucky to have the chance to work at the Bolshoi, and call this legendary place “my theatre”!
One of those great opportunities was to play Solor with the Bolshoi on La Scala's stage, a stage that you've been on since you were a child at La Scala's ballet school.
That was a special moment. I'm very attached to La Scala and dancing on that stage after two years with the Bolshoi, in a leading role, was definitely a huge challenge. It was a big responsibility but at the same time a great honour. In the audience, there were many of my family and friends, who don't get to see me that often on stage – it is always an immense joy to know they're in the theatre.
And once again, you were dancing with Alena Kovaleva.
Alena and I started almost at the same time at the Bolshoi. We've prepared and danced many premieres together and we have also been in many other theatres on tour. Sharing these experiences has given us a special bond, which I think is essential for our work together and our dancing.
Together they have danced Diamonds, Études, Grand Pas Classique, La Bayadère, Flames of Paris, and Raymonda, and in September 2017 they debuted in Swan Lake, roles that they recently brought to London.
It was fantastic to hear that we'd been given two performances at the Royal Opera House. I made my debut with The Royal Ballet in May when I stepped in as Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet – which was a new choreography for me – but to bring a Bolshoi repertory ballet to the theatre, and one of my favourite roles, was thrilling.
Again, a lot of weight on your shoulders.
There was a great deal of preparation for the premiere, not just on a technical level, but also on the artistic one. It is a beautiful journey to find every aspect of a role, and Seigfreid is one that is continually developing with each show. He's such an interesting character, and in Grigorovich's version there are particular psychological nuances, which gives the opportunity to express many different moods.
Were you particularly nervous about this debut?
The first performance is always a little more tense, but I enjoyed the show, and I felt very ‘in the moment'.
You are now used to the vast Bolshoi stage. La Scala's is smaller, and that of The Royal Opera House is even smaller.
The Bolshoi stage is very big, so almost always when we travel we have to adjust a little bit depending on the different stages, but I really like the atmosphere at the Royal Opera House.
To round off the interview, I wanted to ask him about his character. His apparent timidity must cover a steely core otherwise how could he have confronted so many challenges, and alone, far away from his family and friends? All the while he was also battling to learn a new language and – even if he did feel warmly welcomed at the Bolshoi – facing the critical and maybe resentful looks of dancers who have gone through the rigorous Russian training. Many would have been defeated by the pressure.
It's difficult to describe oneself… maybe you could do it?
And that's it – I can't. Tissi smiles a lot but there seems to be a melancholic layer just beneath the surface and when he smiles he often drops his gaze. From time to time he appears to drift off into his own pensive space. He is something of an enigma. But in an age when everything is laid bare in social media, it could be that a little mystery isn't such a bad thing, and for someone interpreting various characters on stage perhaps, even, an asset.
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.