You were recently promoted to First Soloist at the Mariinsky Ballet. Happy?
Yes, I was promoted after a show of Giselle back in January and it was quite out of the blue!
Leaving the corps
Xander Parish joined the Mariinsky as a Coryphée in 2010 after twiddling his thumbs for five years at The Royal Ballet. He was 23, frustrated with his spear-carrying duties and itching to dance.
In a review, four years later, The Times said, “Parish exudes that graceful alpha male masculinity that the French call “danseur noble”. It's a rare and very valuable quality, both supremely musical and highly polished”. It added, “You would be hard pressed to cite many other dancers today who could outdo Parish's awesome power-propulsion jumps”.
What do you consider to be the aspects of your technique or stage presence that allowed you to leave the corps de ballet?
Many dancers have potential to leave the corps de ballet; the thing that determines who does is often where you are and when, and who spots your potential: in other words, being in the right place at the right time and having a director who sees something in you! This is what allowed me to leave the corps de ballet. That review is very complementary but I don't think I had a particularly developed jump before I'd been trained in the roles I'm now dancing. I needed to work hard on those solo roles to develop in that area which is what Yuri Fateyev, my director, allowed me to do.
The same rave review said that acting wasn't your strong suit… fair?
Acting is actually my favourite thing about performing a ballet! Personally, I feel very comfortable in acting roles. I feel that that side of my performing comes naturally to me and isn't something I've had to strive for, like classical technique for instance, but the reviewer is entitled to his impressions of that particular show. I don't know which show that was for but perhaps it was on tour, possibly after travelling, maybe it was a high-pressure show where I was a bit nervous. So many things can affect a performance. Saying that, it's not uncommon to have two people say completely opposite things to you after a show about exactly the same thing! That's one of the interesting things about our art form: different people get different things out of it.
In fact, that review was written when he was on tour, at the Royal Opera House when the Mariinsky were visiting in 2014. It is difficult to think of what a more high-pressure moment could be: he was returning to the stage he'd left after feeling overlooked, and dancing a lead role with the Mariinsky Ballet. So, if he was a little distracted it is understandable. The Mariinsky was so convinced of his talent that he was also slated to dance Romeo and Apollo on the same tour. A few months earlier they had promoted him to Second Soloist.
Looking back, why do you think you weren't given the chances you were offered at the Mariinsky when you were with The Royal Ballet?
The Mariinsky Ballet has an understanding built into its history that to turn a young dancer into a leading dancer, one has to give that dancer stage experience and a lot of coaching. Of course, not every dancer in the Mariinsky's corps becomes a principal, but from joining the company, on day one, the artistic staff have already evaluated which dancers have the necessary potential. Those dancers are assigned to a coach whose job it is to develop that potential and bring them up to the next level. This doesn't happen overnight, but with experience and correction the results are honed in on.
During the time I was with the Royal Ballet, dancers were employed to fill a position that needed filling there and then, not so much with a view towards future development. Young dancers, usually from the Royal Ballet School, were employed for the corps and experienced dancers, often from other companies, as soloists. There is nothing wrong with that, except that the company became top heavy with more principals and soloists than corps de ballet which meant opportunities were not available. In the Mariinsky you dance the rep to earn the promotion; in the Royal you got promoted to dance the rep. I was once told, “We can't promote you because you haven't danced anything,” but I wasn't cast for anything because I was in the corps.
Living in St Petersburg
Parish has just passed his thirtieth birthday and slightly more than half his career has been spent in St Petersburg; the more successful half.
I've been here enough time now that it feels very comfortable. When I was a student at White Lodge, London felt a long way from home, about three hours by train and car to East Yorkshire. When I first arrived in St Petersburg, I again felt a long way from home, but actually it's only three hours by plane to London. Over the years as I've become more used to things here, I feel much less far away from home. I suppose it's not always the distance that makes somewhere far away though! The more I overcome various barriers, whether cultural, lingual or whatever, the easier I find it to live here.
What do you like about it?
I love the history of St Petersburg which is tangible, not just at the Mariinsky but everywhere from Palace Square right up Nevsky Prospekt. It feels like a small town and it's amazing how I will almost always see someone I know when I go out anywhere. I arrived at the airport the other day and bumped into one of my colleagues at the luggage conveyor belt, then from the taxi I saw three people I know walking on the street; it's just that kind of place.
The population of five million dwarfs that of his hometown, Hull, with its quarter of a million (oh yes, he got saddled with the tag ‘the Billy Elliot of Hull' by The Telegraph, at one point) but it's far less densely populated than London. No niggles then?
There's not much if anything at all I don't like about St Petersburg… oh, apart from the central heating being controlled by the city officials who turn it on in the early autumn and turn it off when they deem it warm enough in late spring!
It's amusing how the locals often quiz me to make sure I prefer it to Moscow. Here is certainly the cultural capital and they are proud of that!
And is Xander Parish proud to be British?
I am very proud to be British. I'm patriotic and living abroad has only strengthened that. My sister bought me a Union Jack doormat which greets anyone coming to my flat and my cousin sent me bunting for the Queen's jubilee a few years ago which still hangs over my windows! I feel I'm representing my country over here in my sphere of work and I hope that my being and working here is a helpful contribution for British-Russian relations, however small.
Whatever one's political opinion may be, I'm glad that my country has a democratic process which gives the people a choice.
Life with the Mariinsky
The Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky are two of the world's finest classical companies, yet different in so many ways. The Mariinsky was formed in the 1740s and The Royal Ballet came into being two centuries later. There is, however, an important thread that links the two companies. Shortly after The Royal Ballet was formed, Ninette de Valois invited Vladimir Stepanov to mount ballets for the fledgling company using the choreographic notation he had taken out of St Petersburg after the 1917 revolution. In this way, Petipa came to London.
What are the differences between working at The Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky?
The major difference in my opinion is preparation before shows. Of course, my experience in the Royal was only in the corps de ballet so I can't give a complete comparison with how the leading dancers there work; but here, if a piece is already in your rep, you will have three days — though sometimes four or five if the schedule allows — to put it back together with your partner, whether a new partner or one you've already danced with, before the show.
Also, unless it's a new production, we almost never rehearse with the corps de ballet; we just meet them on stage for the show. I found this very hard at first, particularly in ballets like Swan Lake when in Act 1 it's all interaction with the corps; although in that instance I did have a short rehearsal with the corps on the day of my debut. Now I've actually got used to this to such an extent that I don't mind it and find it keeps things fresh!
There is also a big difference in size between the two companies: the Mariinksy has more than 200 dancers among its ranks; The Royal Ballet has half that number. How does that work logistically… class for example?
There's a lot more physical space to move in at The Royal Ballet. At the Mariinsky we have less studio space so sometimes class feels like being sardines in a tin! Saying that, the company is very used to adapting, (which is useful for touring), and the ballet masters know how to warm us up with limited space.
The Mariinsky's pedagogues, its coaches, are legendary, and give constant support to a dancer, often throughout an entire career. They teach and act as a mentor; a relentless outside eye, observing their pupil onstage and off. Someone who maybe knows the dancers better than they know themselves.
I believe the Mariinsky's biggest strength is the amount of coaches, ballet masters and teachers they have. This was very much lacking at the Royal when I was there. The few coaches they had were excellent but they had their hands full rehearsing the leading dancers for their shows and so José Martin, who at the time was a First Soloist, offered to coach me himself which I'll forever be grateful for. David Howard also coached me in his free time whenever he was guest teaching at the Royal but that was only a few weeks a year.
Parish's coach at the Mariinsky is Igor Petrov, who also looks after three other soloists: Konstantine Zverev, Alexander Sergeyev and Alexei Timofeyev.
Rehearsal-wise, we often have a studio and a pianist booked on the schedule for an hour or so which two or three of us will share, 20 – 30 minutes back to back, and rehearse what we need to individually. That's for our solos and so on.
Igor also comes to our rehearsals with our partners when he isn't busy rehearsing various corps de ballet pieces which he's in charge of. For these rehearsals, the principal female and principal male will both have their coaches in the studio. A lot of bartering goes on between the coaches in early rehearsals to decide whose version of which part of the duet we will do!
Tradition, and the passing down of traditions, is taken very seriously. Each coach, though, has their own experience and memory of what it was like in their day, inevitably leading to disagreements.
It's usually easily resolved. The ballerina is always right and, by default, her coach too. I've danced Swan Lake with many different partners each of whom have slightly different things which they or their teacher want, so I have to be careful not to confuse who wants what.
Our coaches also watch our shows and discuss our progress with our director and then work on things accordingly in the studio to maintain progress. Igor also often teaches one of the four morning classes so I'm able to work with him there too which is good.
Many dancers talk about naughty habits, and needing to return to a basic class to keep everything in check; what are your naughty habits?
I'm sure my coach would be able to answer that better than me! Remembering my coach's corrections especially concerning countering the rake of the stage would probably be one. Now that we have two stages – the historic one is raked and the new one is flat – it's really important to adjust the balance correctly depending which stage we're dancing on.
It's not just the two stages in St Petersburg that they must dance on; the Mariinsky has an extensive touring schedule which takes its dancers to stages around the world.
The Royal tour once a year, in the summer, and pretty much the entire company will go. The day after travel is a day off. The Mariinsky tours throughout the season and always has shows going on back in St Petersburg at the same time, so half the dancers stay and half go, maybe less depending on what rep's being taken. There will almost certainly be a stage call, if not a general rehearsal, the day after travel; possibly even an opening night.
Apart from the coaching, what do you think that working at the Mariinsky has given you that being at the Royal Ballet wouldn't have?
Working at the Mariinsky has given me the opportunity to learn the classics in their home, often their birthplace! To learn Swan Lake in St Petersburg, the home of Tchaikovsky himself, and Sleeping Beauty which premiered at the Mariinsky in 1890, is amazing from a historical point of view! My first principal role with the Mariinsky was the young man in Chopiniana, which premiered on the very stage I had the privilege of dancing it on, 103 years earlier!
And what do you appreciate the most about The Royal Ballet?
I love the Royal's repertoire of Ashton and Macmillan and more recently the modern masterpieces that Wheeldon has been adding to the rep. I thought The Winter's Tale was just fantastic.
The Royal has a very rich repertoire, admired the world over, and I'm proud of my former company for that. There's also great creativity there with incredibly talented choreographers like McGregor and Liam Scarlett, who was one of my classmates at the Royal Ballet School. The leading dancers at the Royal Ballet are very lucky to have new works created on them so regularly by some of the world's best choreographers.
A dancer's life
Svetlana Zakharova said, “No fried potato, cakes or pickles!” What do you do to keep yourself in shape outside class, or is it all bliny, caviar and lazing at the dacha?
I eat sensibly like any athlete would and I specifically eat a lot of protein. I like to have steak or red meat of some sort at least the day before a show. I use the small gym in the theatre when I need to, usually to maintain stamina.
In a lengthy article on claques at the Bolshoi, The New York Times quoted ballet critic Vadim Gayevsky as saying, “The audience does not trust itself, it trusts someone else. If it hears someone applauding very aggressively and intensively, they think that something extraordinary is going on which they did not grasp, and they feel generally that they should not look like fools, that they should join in, so that nobody sees they missed it.” Does the St Petersburg audience know what's going on?
I always get the feeling that the audiences really know what they're watching, as if they've all been coming to the ballet since their babushka first brought them to see The Nutcracker when they were three years-old and have been coming ever since… which is probably the case for many of them.
They seem highly educated about ballet and know how things should look. I know some of the regulars and I will chat with them, especially if I go to watch a show out front and they come up and say hi. I'm always interested to hear what they think of the shows and they are supportive, which is really nice.
Over the last few years you have been working with some of ballet's finest ballerinas. Who are some of your favourite dancers to work with?
I've had some of my biggest debuts with Alina Somova who I love dancing with. She's very easy to work with and is friendly, plus she's a fantastic ballerina!
I made my debut with American Ballet Theatre back in May in Ashton's Sylvia and I danced with Isabella Boylston who is just the loveliest person and is so gifted – she can do anything! I had great fun working with her and she never stopped smiling! It was quite a daunting prospect to go to New York and dance with ABT at the Met but she made it so easy. ABT is a really friendly company, full of such nice people.
Parish recently went to dance in Vladivostok to dance on the Mariinsky's newest stage, the ‘Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre', where Valery Gergiev had organised the Mariinsky's first Far East Festival.
I danced for the first time with Hannah O'Neil who was guesting with us from Paris Opera Ballet and she was also fantastic to work with. Nothing fazed her: it was her debut in our Giselle, which is a different version to that in Paris, with only a few days to rehearse, and we also had to dance Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet balcony pas de deux for a gala there two days after Giselle, again something she hadn't done before, but she was really great and I so enjoyed our shows!
Three years ago, Parish told me that Des Grieux in Manon was a role he'd love to dance. It hasn't happened… yet. Xander, do you still feel the same?
Yes, and in addition I'd like to dance Cranko's Onegin!
You've debuted in other roles though: you've just danced in Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc for the first time. When this interview comes out you'll be in China for the Mariinsky tour dancing in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet with Anastasia Kolegova. In January you will be in London guesting in Giselle with the English National Ballet…
Yes, and the season will culminate with the Mariinsky's London season next summer at Covent Garden which I'm looking forward to already!
In addition, you are now being Xander Parish the impresario.
Back in August I worked with a luxury hotel chain called Per Aquum to present, for the first time, my own galas which we dubbed Xander Parish & Comrades!
They asked me if I could put together a performance which could be presented at their two resorts in the Maldives: Per Aquum Niyama and Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi. They are a very creative brand and think outside the box to devise experiences for their guests.
Per Aquum's blurb for the event read, “Xander Parish, will swap St Petersburg's Theatre Square for a tropical beach backdrop as part of Pulse, Per Aquum's stream of avant-garde experiences.”
I took seven dancers with me so that we'd have four couples each dancing two pieces.
And you danced Eric Gauthier's increasingly popular solo, Ballet 101…
Which I love!
It was the first time that ballet had been presented in the Maldives.
It proved very popular, not only with the guests but the hotel staff seemed to be really taken with it too, which I was delighted about!
The stages they built for us were on the beach with the ocean behind us which made for a beautiful setting! They also brought over from London one of my ex-Royal Ballet colleagues, Andrej Uspenski, who's become a very successful photographer and videographer since he stopped dancing and he captured the whole event in all its colour.
There is a Russian saying which literally translates as, “Endure, Cossack, and you'll become an Ataman”, an ‘Ataman' being a Cossack leader. An English equivalent could be, “No pain, no gain”. Some careers kick off at warp speed, other develop more slowly… there's probably a Russian proverb about the tortoise and the hare too. Xander Parish's decision to say goodbye to The Royal Ballet, to London, and to his friends, was a brave and difficult one. A gamble even. It is a path that others are now following, but one which he largely cut out. Certainly, his perseverance and determination have paid off: Xander Parish has become an Ataman.
So Xander, how's your Russian?
Лучше чем был!
(… Google it!)
You can keep up with Xander Parish on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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.
Thank you very much for this very interesting and highly informative article. I think the journey is an inspiration for many young dancers.
Thanks for this wonderful and extensive article. Most balletomanes in the USA have never seen Parish dance. I knew him by name and youtube fame only. I hope he comes back to New York.
What a great story – I’m sure it was far more challenging than he relates, but it is the history of danceurs that they have to be hugely resourceful.
I hope he gets to dance his Manon and Onegin roles soon.