Xander Parish from Hull dreamed of playing cricket for Yorkshire, so how did he end up as a ballet dancer in Russia? He talks to Phil Penfold.
It has been quite a day – but a fairly routine one. Xander Parish has been in class and rehearsal for something like seven hours, taken a short break, gone to his dressing room, and then appeared on stage for several hours more, before a huge – and admiring – audience. For anyone else, it would be time for bed, but when we speak he appears as laid-back as someone who has spent the day lounging in front of the TV.
Xander is that very rare thing, a British ballet dancer who is one of the emerging stars of the Russian world of dance. More than that, he is one of the leading lights of the St Petersburg-based Mariinsky, perhaps the elite of all the ballet companies. The only British dancer, as it happens. On the web page which profiles each of their dancers, he is there, among a sea of very Slavic-looking, high-cheek-boned colleagues.
It is a cliché to suppose that the world of classical dance is peopled with those who have exotic, slightly sultry backgrounds. However let’s not forget that Dame Margot Fonteyn was born as a down-to-earth Peggy Hookham, in Reigate, Surrey. And, perhaps in that spirit of reinvention, Xander Parish comes from Hull, on the banks of the chill River Humber. And his original ambition was to play cricket for Yorkshire.
It will be five years in January since Xander stepped off the plane from the UK. It was perishingly cold, the snow was a metre deep, and the then 23-year-old had hardly a word of Russian. He was met by the Mariinsky interpreter, Dimitri Ermakov (“Uncle Dima”) and taken to what has been his home since that wintry arrival, the company’s hostel, where many of the other dancers live.
“The great thing about the place,” laughs Xander, “is that it is so close to the theatre that I can roll out of bed and roll into rehearsals. I turned up here almost completely unable to make myself understood and that was just one of the hurdles to overcome, I had to force myself to learn a totally new language. Now? Well, I’d hardly claim to be fluent, but I can talk to my friends in the company, I can order a meal in a café or restaurant, I can book a taxi from the stage door… and I’m even starting to understand jokes, as well.”
In a foreign country, unable to speak the language, Xander admits it was difficult not just to fit in, but also prove his talent in a company where many of the dancers already had close ties.
“Here was this newcomer, direct from the Royal Ballet, about whom no-one knew anything. Some of the senior members of the company just left me alone, and that was it. Nothing unpleasant, nothing untoward. But the younger ones were the first to ‘thaw’, and they’ve become really good friends. They wanted someone on whom they could practice their English – that helped. Yorkshire people are very friendly very quickly – you have to understand that the Russians will leave you to it, until they trust you.
“Yes, there’s rivalry – but that happens in all companies and organisations – but now I feel very much at home, and people are very trustworthy and very kind. There’s also intense competition, but that is a good thing, because it helps you to improve”.
The young Xander first started dance lessons at the age of eight, at the Skelton-Hooper School in East Yorkshire. Dad Nigel is a specialist ink supplier, and his mum Katy looked after the close-knit and very loving family. Xander tries to talk to them almost every night via Skype, and when his parents visit St. Petersburg – which they do as often as they can – his mother’s suitcase is always groaning with food that Xander can’t find over there.
“Things like... let me have a look here.. oh, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and Sunpat Peanut Butter. Oh, and Jaffa Cakes. Thank God for Jaffa Cakes. Poor old mum – I think that she sometimes arrives with not much more than a change of clothing, and the rest of the case is full of food.”
His was a typical middle-class upbringing, comfortable and secure. Determined to play cricket professionally, his favourite pastimes were going to see Yorkshire at Headingley, and watching Darren Gough’s video on the basics of high-speed bowling. All that changed when he went to watch his sister Demelza, who had started dancing at the age of three, in a showcase production.
“I was sitting there in the small auditorium, she came on, did her stuff, and got a wonderful and very deserved round of applause,” he recalls. “And something in my head clicked, and I thought ‘Hello, I want a bit of that...’ The next thing I knew, I was asking my parents if I could go to classes as well, and, well, here I am.”
The truth is that it must have taken guts for an eight-year-old to pull on his tights and practice his initial steps in a room full of girls, with only another male for company. That other boy was Joseph Caley, now a principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and still a close friend.
Xander and Demelza were both offered places at the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge together, and then, when the siblings joined the Royal Ballet company, they shared a flat until Xander’s departure for the Mariinsky, formerly the Russian Imperial Ballet and a company with a heritage that goes back for centuries. He doesn’t offer what the London flat was like, but he vividly recalls the state of the one in St. Petersburg.
“It was... erm, a bit run-down. The paper was coming off the walls, and the paint work had obviously been there for decades. It was very shabby. But all you use the place for is sleep, and, thank heaven, they recently re-decorated, and I’ve made it a little space of my own – curtains, pictures, photographs, things like that.”
It is where Xander wakes up at 10am each day, makes his scrambled eggs or toast and porridge and prepares for his long day ahead.
“Free days, time for yourself,” he confides, “are as rare as hen’s teeth.”
But why the Mariinsky? And how? The plain fact is that the Royal Ballet liked Xander Parish, but not enough to promote him through the ranks. Enter Yuri Fateyev, Russian ballet guru, who turned up to give a fortnight of master classes. Fateyev noticed the tall young man and thought that he had potential. In the second week, Fateyev asked Xander to stay back and show him his jumping skills. The older man was impressed.
Xander remembers: “I jumped and jumped and jumped so much that it almost killed me – but afterwards I had another rehearsal. God knows where the energy came from that day.”
Fast forward half a year, and Xander was still in the corps de ballet at Covent Garden. But Fateyev had just accepted a new position – as Director of the Mariinsky. And he remembered the outstanding talent that he had coached in London. When the company came to London for a season, Xander was invited to take classes with them, and to see their productions in the evening.
“I realised that they did things very differently from the way that we do,” he says. “And then, completely out of the blue, I got a call from Mr Fateyev, and he said, quite simply, ‘Come to Russia and join the company’. Well, I immediately thought of all kinds of obstacles.
“I didn’t speak Russian, for a start, but he insisted, and the nicest thing about it was when he said that the company needed people who worked hard. All this to a guy who hadn’t even danced a small solo with the Royal Ballet.”
Then came the icing on the cake – Xander was promised that, in time, he would dance all the classic male roles. The Prince in Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Count Albrecht in Giselle. Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He has. And more. One of his favourites, he says, is the eponymous lead in Apollo, the ballet created in 1928 by the legendary Balanchine to music by Stravinsky.
“My aim is to keep on learning as much as I possibly can. New techniques, new stagecraft. I am a ‘Mariinsky man’ now, but the Royal Ballet will always be home to me, and I owe them an awful lot. Maybe I’ll be able to return to them at some point in a guest artist role?
“Practically, though, that may be a little difficult, because The Mariinsky doesn’t – unlike a lot of other companies – plan very far ahead. They push us hard, with performances night after night, but I couldn’t say to you, ‘It will be great to meet up when I’m back home’, because I never ever know anything that far in advance.
“So if someone was kind enough to offer a guest Prince in Swan Lake in, say Vienna in June, I’d have to turn it down, because I don’t know if I’d be free. And I don’t want to let anyone down.” And now, he has to get off to bed. Tomorrow he’s rehearsing with a new partner for a performance of Giselle. Before he goes, he says that he’s proud “and slightly embarrassed” by a new book fresh off the press, which is dedicated solely to his time in Russia, and which is lavishly and beautifully illustrated.
“You know the really ironic thing? It’s on sale at the Royal Ballet Shop in London. The company who warned me that I wouldn’t have a career if I left them. I can allow myself a little laugh, can’t I?”
• Xander Parish: Russian Prince, by Mike Dixon and Emma Kauldhar is available from www.danceeurope.net/store