British dancer Xander Parish has just been promoted to First Soloist at the Mariinsky. When Isabella caught up with him last summer, Xander seemed to be on the right path to this well-deserved promotion:
The first thing we do when we enter the Mariinsky Theatre is to find today’s schedule. Then Xander explains what a usual working day looks like: “Our schedule is meant to cover a 6-day week. In Russia, Monday is the official day off for staff in museums and theatres, but in reality, I often work on Mondays too. Usually the soloists work during the day, and the corps the ballet in the evenings from 7 to 10 pm. My day starts with class from 11 to 12 noon and then I’ve got rehearsals.”
When entering the backstage area of the Mariinsky Theatre, I feel as if I’m going back in time. The building breathes history. Some of the biggest past and present ballet stars have rehearsed and performed here, and both auditorium and backstage areas don’t seem to have changed much: chandeliers and gold ornaments decorate the auditorium, there are cracked wooden floors and dated pieces of furniture. But the first impression is one of enchantment. Xander remembers it well: “I arrived in early January, middle of winter, snow everywhere. It was extraordinary. It was pitch-black dark outside – white nights in summer and black nights in winter – and the green theatre was blinking like an emerald in the middle of the snow. It was magical. I had seen it many times in documentaries and read about the theatre, in books about famous dancers. It was there, this green gem in the middle of the snow glowing at me! From the inside, it was broken pianos and chandeliers, 1920s décor and I just loved it.”
Magic aside, it is clear that Xander is here to work hard. He often spends the full week in the theatre rehearsing and performing. “I didn’t come to Russia for fun, I came here to work. I came to dance and I’m happy with what I do. If it weren’t for work, I would have no reason to be here. I want to progress and to prove my director that he made the right choice in bringing me here.”
While on our way to the Mariinsky II (the new theatre) for a rehearsal of Swan Lake, we meet other dancers and staff in the corridors. Xander greets them enthusiastically, and they respond with a smile and are happy to exchange a few words with us. Everyone seems friendly and welcoming. “In the beginning, it was unusual for the Mariinsky dancers to have an English person running around in their theatre, but now everyone is used to me being here. The older generation has left, and the younger generation see me as part of this company, some of them are looking up to me, so it becomes easier and easier” says Xander. Five years on, however, he is still one of the very few foreigners: “I don’t speak Russian fluently. I can understand and speak the language quite well, but sometimes I still miss some of the information. But everyone is very helpful”. As Xander spends most of his time in the theatre, his circle of friends and supporters mainly consists of artists and other staff from within the Mariinsky. “Valery Dmitriev is one of my good friends in the city. He is a ballet fan and tourist guide. He looks out for me”, he says.
After rehearsal – under the supervision of Xander’s coach Igor Petrov (“Igor has been my coach for the past 3 years, he is a wonderful guy”) – we sit down at a bright and modern canteen in this new building, where we expand on his dancing career with the company. The year of 2015 has been a busy one, with many premieres and debuts. We also talk about the book published by Dance Europe – Xander Parish – Russian Prince (2014) – charting his first years in Russia, and Xander reveals there is a second one in the pipeline. “My career really took flight and a lot of things have happened since then, so a new edition is in the making. It’s quite an honour to be the subject of a book, and Mike Dixon and Emma Kauldhar did such a great job. Funny thing is that you can find it in the shop at the Royal Opera House. Yuri Fateyev went to London recently and called me to say how proud he was when he saw my book there. I left the Royal Ballet, and there’s my book just next to Carlos Acosta’s and Steven McRae’s. Plus, Steven is one of my best friends, so it’s really cool to see our books standing there next to each other.”
As for Xander’s repertory, 2015 brought many international tours and his long awaited debut in Diamonds, dancing with three renowned ballerinas: Alina Somova, Viktoria Tereshkina and Kristina Shapran. But dancing Marguerite and Armand with Ulyana Lopatkina was truly special: “When Yuri came up to me and told me Ulyana requested me for this part, I could hardly believe it! It was such a privilege to dance with her. She is very easy to work with, not a diva in the slightest. She is focused and knows what she wants, but I guess that’s why she’s the best. Plus, for the anecdote, it was almost like the reverse of the Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership, with the Brit debutant learning from the Russian prima.”