By Sarah Crompton
June 30, 2014
It is four years since he left the Royal ballet to join the renowned company in St Petersburg, becoming the first Briton to do so. Now he is back in London – dancing in three of the greatest roles in classical ballet
It only takes nine hours to get from Hull to St Petersburg, give or take a few delays – 1,222 miles as the bird flies. And an entire world away. This is the distance Xander Parish has travelled to become the first British dancer ever to join the Mariinsky Ballet, moving from ballet class in a salmon-pink-painted former church school to the gilded grandeur of the old Imperial Theatre, named after an empress and home to the most famous stars in dance.
When the Mariinsky Ballet lands in London at the end of July this unassuming 28-year-old with a wide, gentle smile will step out on stage as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Apollo in George Balanchine’s crystalline ballet – among the three greatest roles in classical dance.
No wonder he has the dazed smile of a man who sometimes wonders if he is dreaming. ‘Hull is like a sanctuary,’ he says, looking around the small, bare space of his old dance school. ‘It puts everything in perspective for me. I am in Russia 11 months of the year and the Mariinsky is the office. I forget what a huge place of history it is: Nureyev and Baryshnikov grew up there. When I was dancing here, I could never, ever have imagined I would be there.’
We are sitting on a raised stage at the end of a sunlit room with a barre round three sides and a polished wood floor. It may not be the Mariinsky but the Skelton Hooper School of Dance and Theatre has its own distinguished story to tell: in its 65 years it has produced a roster of notable graduates to fill the ranks of British companies, including the Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare. Joseph Caley, now a principal with Birmingham Royal Ballet, was Parish’s classmate and friend.
Vanessa Hooper took the place over from her mother, Vera Skelton, and it is she who remembers a small eight-year-old boy arriving for his first ballet class, trailing behind his sister, Demelza. ‘He hadn’t quite grown into his tights, so had rather baggy knees. But he had beautiful feet. I knew he could be good, right from the beginning,’ she says.
Spool forward some 14 years and it is those feet that got Xander Parish noticed once again. By this time he had trained at the Royal Ballet School and entered the company, where his younger sister is still a dancer. Then Yuri Fateyev, the newly appointed deputy director of the Mariinsky Ballet, brought his company to London for a season in 2009 – and Parish went along to take class with the visitors.
‘He has the absolute perfect body shape for a lyrical male ballet dancer,’ Fateyev explains. ‘Plus, he is very hard-working. He can work until he is falling to the floor – and then ask if we can repeat it once more.’
So Fateyev, who has opened up the Mariinsky to dancers outside Russia for the first time, asked Parish if he wanted to join him at the company in St Petersburg. ‘I told him it was impossible. I thought he was nuts,’ Parish says now. ‘How could I possibly just go to Russia? Nobody had done it before. Who was I to go and join the Mariinsky Ballet?’
That fractional hesitation, that sudden fear, reveals one of the ironies of a balletic training. To become a dancer requires enormous discipline, huge courage and self-belief. Xander Parish had proved that. His love of ballet came out of the blue.
He comes from the solid heart of the Yorkshire middle class; his father is a specialist ink supplier, his mother stayed at home with the children. As a young boy he was good at all sports – football, swimming and particularly cricket. But then one day he saw Demelza in a performance at the Skelton Hooper school. ‘I asked, why am I sitting here on a chair when she is on stage having a good time? And with that I went to ballet class as well.’
He coped with any opposition his schoolmates might have to the idea by simply not telling them. ‘Maybe I was a bit naive,’ he says. ‘No one knew. No problem.’
Seduced by a love of performance, fuelled by spaghetti hoops and ambition, he travelled the country, ferried around by his mother, and performed in competitions to learn and hone his art. When he was offered a place at the Royal Ballet School at the age of 11 he gave up cricket (his first dream – ‘I was a good bowler’) and submitted himself to the rigours of constant scrutiny.
‘Once I arrived in London I wasn’t [there] just for the sake of it,’ he says. ‘I was going to be a ballet dancer. I was all in. I had plenty of facility but I had to learn to use it. I had to do a lot to catch up.’
All of this was propelled by a perfectionist’s desire to be the best. But at the same time he learnt to obey and to follow instructions, another ingredient in any dancer’s training. So once Parish joined the company in 2005 he languished in the corps de ballet, carrying spears, forming the backdrop, but not getting a chance to shine in solos.
He recalls, ‘When you join the Royal Ballet as a kid from the school you are very much in the corner of the studio, not noticed, out of the way, not seen and not heard. It just happens. It is the mentality of the British kids from the school, we are very quiet and timid.’
In that period he met Fateyev for the first time, when the Russian arrived in London as a guest teacher in 2007. ‘He had an energy and charisma in class like an atom bomb,’ Parish remembers. ‘He was so energetic and had so much to say and had so many corrections. He used to correct me a lot, and focus on me, whereas normally I’d be the last person they’d focus on in the company because I’d be at the bottom of the pile.
‘He was there for two weeks and one day I asked for extra coaching. He made me jump and jump until I left the studio as red as a tomato and sweating everywhere. And then I ran to my next rehearsal to hold a spear or whatever.’
Parish, keen to dance, knew that someone had seen something in him, some potential others were missing. Yet two years later when Fateyev asked him to join the Mariinsky he was assailed by doubt. ‘He said, “I can turn you into a prince. I need tall dancers who work hard and if you want to come I will teach you.”
‘Then he reeled off all these roles that for me were somewhere over the rainbow. At that particular time, I had never done a solo on stage. I had never danced a pas de deux and so the things he was mentioning were like far-fetched dreams. I was scared. So I said I would think about it.’
He told the then director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, about the opportunity that had been offered to him – and asked if there was any chance of a sabbatical, to improve his technique and learn before returning to his home company.
‘I respect Monica very much as a lady and a person,’ Parish says firmly, before he explains how she discouraged him. ‘She told me not to go to Russia because she didn’t like the style and it wasn’t suitable for a British dancer who had been trained in the British way.’ She also said she would not be able, at that point, to offer him more opportunity to dance and extend his range.
So Parish thought some more. ‘I am a person of faith and I prayed about this and I thought it was a God-given opportunity,’ he says. ‘I thought, let’s do it. It is going to be fun. At least if I failed I could still say I was the first person ever to go from Britain to the Mariinsky company.’
For a man who believes that his ability to dance is a God-given talent the Mariinsky is the place to be. Dance is indeed more than a job in a company that was founded in the 18th century, a place where classical ballet was forged and refined in the hands of the master choreographer Petipa, where Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina danced. Here, ballet is a calling and a talent is something to be honed until it gleams.
This sense of inspiration sustains the performers through days long enough to reduce a healthy ox to its knees. Backstage, away from the gold and turquoise glamour of the old theatre, or the bleached-wood splendour of the new building, opened next door last year, conditions are primitive though cosy.
In a maze of corridors, dancers slouch exhausted on a row of couches that line a linoleum-floored corridor. The rehearsal room walls are queasy orange, the light dingy, the fittings battered. But the quality of dancing almost dazzles.
Parish takes his place in class alongside luminaries such asUlyana Lopatkina, Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov. They are all principals, while he is only a second soloist, but there is no hierarchy in the exhausting daily workout at the barre, where dancers stretch and strengthen their battered bodies ready for performance.
The routine is relentless. On the first day we met in St Petersburg, Parish went from class to an Apollo rehearsal to an onstage rehearsal of a new ballet called Intensio to an onstage rehearsal of Apollo to performance, with barely a break.
‘The regime here is something else. It makes the Royal Ballet look like a holiday camp,’ he says with a smile. ‘They work us seven days a week, hours and hours. Sometimes you don’t know whether you are coming or going, and Yuri will say, “Don’t be lazy,” and I know what he means, because sometimes I feel I am being lazy when I just want to go and sleep.’
You would still pick Parish as English, I think, even if you encountered him talking to his friends in easy Russian. He has a neatness, a clean-cut taste in plain rehearsal clothes that distinguishes him from the exotic Russians around him. Yet he seems entirely integrated into this bustling company.
It is a far cry from January 9, 2010 when he first arrived, landing to find the snow piled so high that he couldn’t see the river. ‘It was about 3pm and there was an orange glow over the city. I thought it looked horrible.’ He spoke not a word of Russian and knew nobody except Fateyev.
Standing in front of the theatre – ‘a mint-green gem among all the snow and ice’ – he thought, ‘Who on earth am I and what am I doing here? They are going to find out that I am an absolute nobody. That was my biggest fear. Being found out.’
His isolation was severe. Only the dancers who wanted to practise their English spoke to him; he wasn’t even told there were canteens in the building so he had to run to a nearby cafe to point at the food he wanted to eat. ‘For the majority of dancers it was like I wasn’t there,’ he says. ‘They looked straight through me. I was very busy, I had no time to get homesick or regret what I had done. But I didn’t unpack my suitcase for the first month, just in case.’
He says the other dancers simply did not see him as their problem; he was just the guy from England. It is also possible that in the intricate politics of an organisation where everybody is always striving for success some of the dancers regarded him as a threat.
But in fact Fateyev’s hopes for his young protégé were not immediately realised. Parish’s own assessment of his ability at that point was closer to the truth than his director’s hopes.
‘When Yuri saw how hungry I was to learn, he thought he could turn me into something,’ he says. ‘But I needed a lot longer than he realised. I was a slow cooker not a fast one and he has been very wise to let me grow at my own rate. I was always a slow developer. As a kid I was like Bambi until I was 19. I am still getting stronger, still learning.’
In the autumn of 2011 he had another setback. He snapped a ligament in his foot – ‘my leg was black to the knee and my foot was swollen like a rugby ball’ – and returned to London for five months, where he stayed with his sister and used the Royal Ballet’s physio facilities.
It was on his return to Russia, and on tour, that things began to change. He was given a new coach, Igor Petrov, and began to make up the ground he had lost. ‘We spent hours and hours together and he took me through the basic jumps to get my legs strong, to get my power back.’
Watching them together – rehearsing for Parish’s debut as Prince Siegfried – you see how this experienced Russian ballet master has radically altered Parish’s technique, urging him to bend his knees deeper so he will jump higher, shouting encouragement across the room, pushing a shoulder or a knee into perfect line.
Slowly, the solos turned into leading roles as, simultaneously, Parish began to grow in confidence and make friends within the company. ‘They got to know me and realised I wasn’t someone who was there for five seconds of glory and then was going to leave,’ he says.
Last year he made his debut as Albrecht, Romeo, Apollo and finally – in March – Siegfried. ‘I found it difficult,’ he says. ‘In Russia there is such a sense of history and you feel the weight of it on your shoulders. To be cast as Prince Siegfried in the Mariinsky Theatre where Petipa created it, with all your colleagues crowding the wings to watch, it is your test, your exam.’
His Odette, Yulia Stepanova, was also making her debut. ‘It was a furnace. It refined us, made us stronger and we learnt a lot,’ he says, grinning. After his debut he was officially promoted to soloist.
Watching him dance Apollo, a role that he says was ‘one of my heart’s desires’, you understand how Russia has transformed Xander Parish. He is more polished and more confident. He jumps sharply and tilts his chin, like a god. But every now and then something of the timid young Englishman sneaks into his portrayal; there’s a shy, boyish charm under the Russian veneer.
His personality works beautifully in the part of a fledgling immortal finding his feet and Fateyev values that sense of drama in Parish, part of the British tradition of dramatic dance. ‘He acts very well,’ he says. ‘He is not doing it like every dancer, but finding his own line and explaining to the audience his way of thinking.’
Seeing his sister perform, realising that it was fun to impersonate different people, was what made Parish want to be a dancer in the first place. ‘When I am on stage, I don’t want to be me, I want to be Siegfried or Albrecht. I love to be lost in the story.’ That, most of all, is what he has learnt in Russia.
‘I feel I was trained to dance in a studio,’ he says. ‘Here I have learnt how to dance on stage. When you have an audience of 2,000 in front of you everything feels different.’
Standing on the Mariinsky stage, with the warm glow of the auditorium lights on his face and the audience close to him in the overhanging boxes, Xander Parish became a new man and a different dancer. That’s not to say he has become the best dancer in the world, or even yet a great one. He is just the best dancer he can possibly be.
‘I think I am good enough to be at the place where Yuri wanted to put me when he first invited me out here,’ he says. ‘He took a great risk bringing me to Russia as an unknown British guy with no experience. He has taken years to break me down, reteach me, grow me.
‘It is a great privilege to be a Russian prince. And, by God’s grace, here I am doing it.’
The Mariinsky Ballet’s three-week season at the Royal Opera House begins on July 28 (roh.org.uk/about/mariinsky).
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