A gala event for the prestigious Premio Positano Danza Léonide Massine took place last Saturday in Positano, Italy. This year’s winners include the Bolshoi’s Olga Smirnova, who was awarded the prize for “Ballerina of the Year on the International Scene” and Royal Ballet Principal Steven McRae, who received the “Male Dancer of the Year on the International Scene” award. Joining the impressive line-up of laureates is Mariinsky soloist Xander Parish, who was awarded the prize for “Emerging Male Dancer on the International Scene”.
This award seems to come as the culmination of a wonderful season for the dancer, or as Bolshoi principal David Hallberg put it, in a tweet of congratulations: “Xander is Killing it”! Over this summer, Xander had already delighted London audiences and critics performing with the company at the Royal Opera House in the roles of Apollo, Prince Siegfried (dancing opposite the Odette/Odile of Yulia Stepanova) and Romeo (to Viktoria Tereshkina’s Juliet). We caught up with him for a chat in the midst of a very busy tour:
TBB: How is it going with Romeo, plus all the roles you are dancing in London?
XP: I can’t even describe it, it’s like a whirlwind, it has been so busy! My last day off was yesterday, but before that, it was back in May, and I’ve worked every day, solid. Before we flew here last week, I had my debut as the first guy in Serenade, two days after I danced Giselle with Novikova and, two days later, we flew to London. And then, I did Romeo straight away. I had two rehearsals in Russia for Romeo and Juliet with Viktoria [Tereshkina], just two! And I did it last time back in October 2013. So I hadn’t touched it for the last 10 months. And then a couple of rehearsals, the general and the show!
TBB: That’s the thing with the Mariinsky, right? They rehearse everything at the same time. How can one cope?
XP: Somehow it just works. I’m not entirely sure how. I think one day a scientist is going to come in and do an experiment and will be able to come up with a formula that explains it.
TBB: How did it feel to dance Romeo here?
XP: Phenomenal. It felt comfortable because it is my stage. I grew up here, so I know it very well. I’ve been performing on it since I was 13 years old. That was with the Royal Ballet School in The Nutcracker. As a student, I was one of the soldiers, a long time ago… Afterwards, I was an extra, and then I joined the company. I was there four and a half years, so I know it well. All the staff are the same, at the stage door… I see Eugene (awesome guy!) and he goes ‘Xander, heyyyy, give me a hug’. Every time I come back they are so welcoming: people at the stage door, security, at the restaurants, I see the other artists and the guys there: Mash, Bruno, Gary and others in the stage crew were literally in the wings cheering for me during the tour!
TBB: What do you think of UK reactions to the Leonid Lavrovsky version of Romeo & Juliet, in particular the comment that it looks outdated?
XP: I think they should take it for what it is. This is the original Romeo and Juliet, made a long time ago, it is a museum piece in some respect. You don’t go to the Hermitage and say ‘it is so old-fashioned, they should really update it with some new curtains and put some modern lighting in there’. You take it for what it is. MacMillan saw it before he created his own. Of course he improved on it, because that is what you do. Whenever I am new to a role, I watch someone else who has done it well and I take what I like and improve what I think I can do better. That’s what you do. So of course MacMillan made a better version: he had the blueprints already. I love MacMillan’s version, that’s what I grew up watching here, and I actually had a hard time loving my current version when I went to Russia, since MacMillan’s was the only I knew. It was hard “to go backwards”. But now that I’ve learnt it and danced it… you fall in love with it. It is fascinating and I actually prefer certain bits like the crypt scene, the very last scene. The starlit sky, the turquoise background. It is so beauuuuutiful!
TBB: And how about that mightly leap off the stairs! How do you Romeos do that!??
XP: Ha! It is all in the bum. You fall on your bum. Audiences don’t notice. You think we’re falling on our back, but we don’t. It was only when I saw other guys who did it very well, that I realised it while watching them on slow motion. On my first show, I did a very bad job of it; I fell flat on the ground and rolled backwards. It was horrendous and then, when I died, I straightened my leg so it would look nice. But now, I know how it works: the stairs are behind you, your arms are up, nobody is looking at your legs and then you take a step backwards, and literally sit on your bum and then you just put your back on the floor. It does bang a bit, but after two minutes you’ve forgotten about the pain. Basically, your bum takes the impact, then you roll backwards on the stairs and it looks amazing. When you fall, you hear the audience going ‘ohhhh!!’, so you know if it was good or not based on their reaction. Actually, some of the critics said that it was a bit too much, but I like that! And yes, no foam in those stairs, I promise you.
TBB: It looks hard though… But what is really the hardest part in the ballet?
XP: The balcony pas de deux. It is a marathon. Everyone who has danced it knows it, and says it has one of the worst bits they have ever done: the part half way through it where you just want to be sick. You know when you were back in school and you trained for races, and you are in the last lap and you feel like you just can’t? Well, it is like that! And then you have a lift. So you do the first bit of the pas de deux, you look around, you put Juliet down, you do a promenade, you miss her; you do your variation for her, do your circle of jumps, double-tours to the knee and then you are like ‘can we please have a pause, a break now, a bit of tea please?’
But no, it keeps going. That’s the hard part. It certainly adds to the drama. But I love Vika to bits. She is without a doubt one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She is just lovely. I can’t even describe how nice she is. She is a big star and she looks impressive but she is one of the gentlest, sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. Every show we dance together, before we dance, she holds my hands and she tells me ‘Sasha, just enjoy it. If something goes wrong, it doesn’t matter, and we’ll just get through it’. Vika is amazing. She is a mum, she is a prima ballerina, she is an amazing lady. I respect her a lot.
TBB: were you a bit intimidated by her the first time?
XP: Yeah, the first time back in October … ‘Whoa!’ I knew I was holding someone above my head who was very precious… I kept saying to myself: ‘Be careful!’ But when someone is as nice as Vika, you soon forget that she is… ‘Tereshkina!’ You become friends and it is easier. If I didn’t know her, or if I wasn’t as friendly with her, it would be harder.
TBB: What have been other memorable experiences at the Mariinsky?
XP: I danced Aminta from Ashton’s Sylvia. That was with Somova… Alina’s debut, and she was great. The role suits her very well and we enjoyed learning it together. That was fun. I was surprised by how well we worked together. We both have very long limbs, so we were very well matched. Plus, that is Royal Ballet repertory and we did it in Russia. The last time I had done that, I was third cast corps de ballet I think! Yet, even funnier is the fact that when I was in my last year in school, at the Royal Ballet School, Sylvia was revived, so I was sent across to cover the corps de ballet and I was asked to sit on the floor and be ‘the body for Aminta’, so that the corps de ballet knew where he sat on the floor. Ten years later, I am doing Aminta himself, but in Russia. I went from lying on the floor being dead Aminta for the corps de ballet, to dancing Aminta, how funny is that?
TBB: It’s great to hear you are getting all these amazing opportunities. So, what’s next?
XP: I have my debut in Sleeping Beauty next season. I don’t know when I am dancing. I do have a show scheduled in February with Somova, but I think I’ll debut before that. There are about 20 shows a month, and some are scheduled already, because of how the Mariinsky subscription packages work.
TBB: Any other dream roles that might be in the pipeline?
XP: I don’t know… Now we also have Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand in the repertory and I want to do that, given that I was on stage with Sylvie Guillem back on my first year in the RB corps de ballet, holding the candelabra. She was right in front of me (I was, of course, wearing one of those horrible wigs!). Ultimately, I love any ballet with emotion. I love doing the classics. I love Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, I especially love roles with a story and emotion: like Romeo and Albrecht. Albrecht is a cracking role! Love doing it, he is nasty, a bit of a jerk. He causes a sweet little girl to die. It is the story that carries me through.
On the other hand, I also love pure classical dance, Balanchine especially, so Serenade for me was perfect. Even in plotless ballets, I try to create a story in my own head, in my own heart. I like to show what I am doing. Tchaikovsky’s music for Serenade it is just so beautiful, so “dancey”. It is just singing for you, for you to ride the wave. It is saying something. My debut was two weeks ago and I loved it. I did it with Oxana [Skorik]. She was lovely to work with. Her legs are like this [signals they are long]!
TBB: So you are pretty much old school, in terms of the classics, prince roles…
XP: Getting there… Well, it is my strength, but see, I’ve only done these things a few times. I hope that, in a couple of years, I will have had the chance to really get into them. I’ve done Swan Lake three times plus a general rehearsal, Romeo twice, Giselle (Albrecht) I’ve done five times. I need to get more performances under my belt!
TBB: Is there a way you can ask for a role, say for Armand?
XP: For instance Marguerite and Armand was staged at the Mariinsky just a month and a half ago and I wasn’t on the list to learn it, but I know Grant Coyle, who came there to stage it. And on the first day, I went to rehearsal: ‘Hey Grant, I am going to learn this ballet from you!’ And he was happy for me to learn it. He speaks English, so it is easier to teach me than in Russia.
TBB: On that note, can you communicate without an interpreter?
XP: Oh yes, I can. But if it gets complicated, then I need interpretation. Let’s say that ‘Rushklish’ is my new language.
TBB: So do you feel integrated to the company now?
XP: Totally! I really do. I have a lot of friends, really cool guys. Everyone is lovely. I feel well adopted by the company. They are really nice to me now. I say now because it took a couple of years to get past the initial hurdles. I still live in the same flat, in the Mariinsky’s building. So I am on the same building as two conductors from America who work for the theatre, a bunch of orchestra members, opera singers and some other dancers. It is a nice bunch in the building. And downstairs there is my babushka Natasha, who loves me and buys me food and force-feeds me apples: ‘Sasha, Sasha…I have this bag of apples from my garden’.
TBB: So your plan is to stay in St. Petersburg?
XP: Yes, for now. We’ll see how it goes. It is easier and easier to be there. It just feels more normal. It is great now, whereas I used to dread going back. I arrived in January 2010. After three months, I had to get back to the UK for a new visa, and every time I would get back and forth, I would dread going to the Airport. I didn’t understand anything, I didn’t know what was going on. It was horrible. But now, it is so easy. It is like getting on the tube for me. Heathrow T5. Get on the plane. Get off, order taxi, go home. Five hours door to door.
TBB: Speaking of travelling, how frequently do you tour with the company?
XP: We tour a lot. We are going to Italy in September. Then the company is going to Brazil, but I am not cast in that tour. I don’t dance Le Corsaire yet, but I wanna do Conrad. I like that role. Give me a fake mustache any day. I’ll do that. Great fun. Why not? I don’t think I am Ali-the-slave material, but Conrad I can do. I’ve got a baby face, but hey…
TBB: Any modern choreographers in your repertory?
XP: We had an evening of Hans Van Manen, just a couple of months ago. That was great fun. I loved his stuff. I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to dance his Adage Hammerklavier which is three couples, very simple piano with very strange costumes. But great choreography. We also danced Variations for Two Couples. One in brown, one in blue. Really cool ballet. I danced Matt Golding’s part. Matt and I go way back. We lived in the same building at Baron’s Court when we were in the RBS together, so it was nice to dance his role. But tons of pirouettes, as Matt is a great turner. I kept thinking: ‘Matt, why so many pirouettes!’
TBB: Do you think you’ve grown significantly as a dancer since joining the Mariinsky?
XP: Yeah, goodness! Mainly in the last year and a half, as I did my first full length principal ballet, Giselle, in February last year. So in the last 16 months, or 18 months, I’ve started doing Principal parts, learning how to be a Principal dancer, coming back here and showing London what I’ve learned in the past 18 months… they say 4 years, but really it has been 18 months. I really wanted to do Swan Lake here. I had to show a Prince, it is my part. The audience was really warm and I was so pleased. And I was featured on page four of The Times! What a privilege. I can’t even believe it.
TBB: And how are you handling all the press & attention?
XP: I tend not to listen. I am a little bit naive and it helps me quite a lot. It is good to be a bit naive. I’ve been terrible at updating my Facebook page. I’ve been so busy this week. I got back, my phone was almost broke with so many messages. It was buzzing the entire time. I think I got 50 messages on my first day home: FB, email, my own website, Twitter, Instagram. I am usually really good at keeping on top of it, but uffff!
TBB: You and Steven McRae have been doing such a great job partnering up on social media!
XP: Oh Steven is a great guy, such a good friend. He is awesome. It was a great thing to collaborate on Twitter with #pointeofview. We talked about it last year. We met for dinner last summer, I went to his flat and he was telling me he had decided to do social media. Steven’s presence has rocketed in one year, he is huge and so clever. So when we were talking about it, we thought it would be cool to do a comparison between our lives in the companies, to compare the points of view from Russia and London, so we compared our Romeos.
TBB: If readers were to visit St. Petersburg, what would be your top Mariinsky picks for them?
XP: You simply can’t go wrong, you can see anything at the Mariinsky. It is amazing. The classics sell out pretty much the day they go on sale. Swan Lake specially. To get tickets to Swan Lake is almost impossible. They sell so fast. Giselle as well. And if Lopatkina is mentioned in the programme, it will sell immediately, so book quickly! I would recommend things that are not usually done here, like the Fountain of Bakhchisarai. It is a great ballet. In my opinion, the Mariinsky also do a fantastic Balanchine programme. Just before we left, there was a bill of Serenade, Apollo and Symphony in C. And it was cracking. They do Symphony in C better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
TBB: Anything else to say to your readers?
XP: To all the people who came to support me here in London, a big thanks for it!