Xander Parish born in 1987 in Yorkshire, England. He began dancing at the age of 8, at the Skelton-Hooper School of Dance in Kingston upon Hull, under the direction of principal and former Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet Theatre soloist, Vanessa Hooper. In 1998, he was accepted into the Royal Ballet School. He graduated into the Royal Ballet in 2005, as a member of the corps de ballet. Xander remained with the company for five years, before joining the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg, Russia in January 2010. He made his debut with the company performing the role of the poet in the ballet Chopiniana as a Coryphee. He was promoted to soloist in March 2014 and principal dancer in July 2017. Xander was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2019 New Year Honours for services to dance and UK/Russia cultural relations.
Yulia Savikovskaya met with Xander for an insightful chat about his career, his decision to move to Russia and his outstanding career at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Xander, was there a moment in childhood when you decided to become a dancer? How did it all start?
Xander Parish: That’s a tough question, it’s hard to say. When I was a child I liked doing many things. Dancing wasn’t always on my radar. I wasn’t a kid that knew everything about art. My mom is very artistic, while my father is not artistic. I did a lot of sports. I loved playing board games. When I was about 8 years old, I saw my sister doing a ballet show. I told my mom: ‘Why is my sister doing that?’ – because I didn’t know what it was – ‘Why is she on the stage and I’m sitting here with you? She’s on stage, it looks so much fun’. And my mom said, ‘Why, it’s called ballet, do you want to try it? You can go to a ballet class with her, you can learn together’. It wasn’t exactly doing ballet, I didn’t know what ballet was, it was being on stage that appealed to me. I thought that it was very exciting and interesting. I got the same feeling when I was doing sports: it wasn’t about the game, it was about being on the pitch. Cricket, football, tennis – it was like you were a performer, the center of attention in a way. And it caught my imagination.
Yulia Savikovskaya: So you have never experienced stage fright or shyness, you were naturally born for the stage?
Xander Parish: Yes! I actually liked to perform. It’s funny, because naturally, I wasn’t a very confident child. Quite the opposite, I was very shy. I couldn’t speak properly. I had a stammer, and couldn’t get my words out. So I was very shy around people. When I was doing sports or ballet, there were no words. I felt confident then. I found this very liberating. When I discovered ballet, I just got immersed into it. I didn’t know where it would take me, it’s not like I wanted to be a dancer. But when I was 11 years old, I had to choose between cricket and ballet, I couldn’t do both by then. So I sat down with my dad, we talked about it, and I chose ballet.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I have always been wondering how our body posture relates to emotions. In ballet, do you have to add emotion to each gesture, pose?
Xander Parish: Well, ballet has a physical base. Everyone can be taught the steps and moves. What makes each dancer differ from another dancer, I think, is the emotional response to the movements or the music. Not just the dance itself, but the process, the feeling, the way these movements are articulated, the feelings inside.
Yulia Savikovskaya: That’s probably the highest level of proficiency. Can you tell me more about these dance school drills we all know about? There is a myth that ballet is almost like an army. Is it true? If it is, where do kids get the willpower one needs to learn the skill? Is it based on fear or discipline, or inspiration and desire to dance?
Xander Parish: I can’t speak for every child, but for me it was the desire itself. I wanted to learn, I wanted to become better, to improve. It wasn’t about fear, it was about motivation. I chose this path when I was eleven and I was ready to do whatever it took to succeed. If a child hasn’t got inner motivation to do ballet – forget it. If it is their own passion, the spark, the hunger inside them, it will happen by itself. And the teacher has to find this spark. Every child is born with so many things inside them. Some children have amazing ability and physique for ballet. But their spark is in mathematics! And you can push that child down that ballet hole, but they will scream and hate it, because they are not made for it. They’re made for it physically, but not spiritually. I mean it’s important that the child feels that they belong at the place where they’re training and working. If they do, that’s marvelous. If it’s ballet – fantastic!
Yulia Savikovskaya: I heard at the Vaganova Ballet School the physicality requirements are getting more competitive with each intake. Was it the same when you applied to study in the UK?
Xander Parish: I don’t know about how it is now, but generally, around the world, I’m sure it’s probably the case. However, the ballet is becoming more accessible. For a child it is easier to access ballet training these days. You can travel to competitions and auditions more easily. When I was a child, competitions weren’t in my city, usually around an hour away from home. It was a long car journey. Now it’s easier to get to these, video auditions are often accepted now as well. I think the pool for children who are auditioning is increasing. That’s good for finding the correct body types to train. I think that physicality is number 1. You can’t train the body which is not made for ballet.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Can modern teachers envision the child’s future and state: ‘He will develop into that particular kind of a ballet dancer?’
Xander Parish: Absolutely. It is very obvious. I can see a child and be like ‘Legs are long. Neck is long. Arms long. Skinny. Looks flexible’. You can tell by looking at the child if they’ll be a dancer or not. Obviously you need to find the spark, the hunger, the artistry. There can be ten kids with perfect bodies and only one has the spark and the hunger for performing.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What are the specifics of the British ballet school and do you stand out in Russia as the representative of British school?
Xander Parish: Of course, I have been trained in a British way. I mean, what is British style? In all honesty, the British style comes from the repertoire of Sir Frederic Ashton and Sir Kenneth McMillan. In my opinion, Ashton’s style apart from Sylvia is not suited to me, as I’m quite a slow dancer. I have long limbs and to move fast isn’t very easy to me. Ashton’s ballets are usually quite high speed with fast articulation of limbs, which for a tall dancer is more challenging. I love McMillan’s ballets, with drama and powerful duets.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What is your attitude to Wayne McGregor? Can he be called avant-garde?
Xander Parish: He’s an extraordinary talent, he’s a genius. His uniqueness is in the way he makes his dancers move, in the way he breaks every mould of ballet, he makes you go the opposite direction from where you want to go. The whole thing is about making you think differently. He is very unique. At first you’re exhausted because your brain goes the opposite way, everything is the wrong way around. It’s not just dancing backwards, the whole world is upside down and you’re dancing from front to back. His goal, in a way, is to confuse you. It was exiting to work like that.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Do you have to learn all the classic performances of famous choreographers to know your skills not only through corporeality but also through memory and knowledge? How do you develop the awareness of what was in ballet history before you?
Xander Parish: Surely, when you’re a child and teenager in ballet, you spend a lot of time watching videos of famous dancers of the past. I grew up watching videos of Nureyev, Baryshnikov, watching Carlos Acosta and dancers of Royal Ballet who were around me at that time. You’re surrounded by these things. I didn’t go to the studio thinking ‘I’m going to learn today how a particular dancer dances Swan Lake’. You learn observing and watching as you go, you are in rehearsals with these great dancers, you are absorbing everything. The path you take through the ballet world is full of opportunities to watch and learn. That’s how it happens. For instance, when I came to Mariinsky, I had to learn how to dance Swan Lake. I went to the video room and learnt this version of the Swan Lake. You look at this version and make it your own. It is a natural process. I don’t like the attitude in the ballet world that says ‘Ah, in my day it was better’. I hate it. Memories are always better that the reality.
Yulia Savikovskaya: You decision to move to Saint Petersburg may look unusual to some people. How did it come about?
Xander Parish: Yes, that’s an unusual case. But it wasn’t my desire for starters. I didn’t want to come here. It’s not even that I didn’t want it, but I didn’t think about it, it wasn’t on my radar at all. It wasn’t my plan. I was a very hard-working young man in The Royal Ballet. I was there for four years I was fed up with standing around and doing nothing. I trained and worked really hard to try to be a good dancer but there were no opportunities and no chances. I was fourth and fifth cast in insignificant roles. I’m not ungrateful because those times made me stronger and I’ve learned a lot because again I was watching, absorbing. And it kept me humble. I’ve seen dancers who became very successful very young and became arrogant. It can break a person’s humility.
Yulia Savikovskaya: And there’s no way to improve if you feel that you are already the best. When you are arrogant, you can’t get better, can you?
Xander Parish: Exactly. And it’s so sad. There are so many great dancers who got broken like that because they didn’t get the foundation of humility. It’s an important thing. Once you think you’ve made it when you’re 20 years old, where would you go next? It’s so sad. So yes, I went through the school of humility and then they invited me. How it came about… I was in Royal Ballet doing training there. Yuri Valerievich (Fateev) came to London as a guest teacher. I had no idea who he was. Just another teacher, we had many teachers who came to London. He taught master classes in London for two weeks. I liked this guy. He was really special. He knew how to teach a class. Something exiting. He had passion, he was on fire, he was so excited about teaching, teaching me! He was full of energy, so exciting and refreshing! Sometimes classes can get boring, but he was so alive. I wanted his energy, I wanted his tips, he was so smart. I went up to him after the class and said ‘Can I show you some jumps? He said ’sure’. And we worked for half an hour together, one on one, just like that. And that was it. He went back to Russia and I went back to my spear holding. Half a year later he became the director of Mariinsky ballet. He gave me a call and asked me to join him. I said Okay.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What was your experience of living in Russia?
Xander Parish: I found it really hard. Everything was against me: the culture, the weather, the language, even the people. It was very hard. I was from the West coming here. It was like ‘Why are you here?’. And frankly it was a good question. Why was I here? They didn’t need me here, I wasn’t needed, I was nobody. I was a guy from corps de ballet in London who was holding spears. I wasn’t doing solo roles. So that was a good question.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Were other dancers at Mariinsky Theatre initally a bit judgemental?
Xander Parish: Sure, yeah. They never said that but you could tell a lot by their impressions and the way they treat you. My first year here was quite difficult. There were many kind people but many ones who were difficult. I found it hard. Language I found impossible. I couldn’t understand anything. I spent a lot of time on the language just trying to get it in my head and I couldn’t understand anything. It needs time. The more I learned the language the more I could communicate with people. It was a lot easier. It was a difficult transition. It was very hard.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What were your career milestones at Mariinsky Theatre?
Xander Parish: My first milestone was my very first role which I was given here. I arrived here and on my first day Yuri was like ‘Okay you’re going to dance Shopeniana’. I had no idea what I was! It’s called Les Sylphides in the west so I had no idea what it was. Before that I had never done a solo on stage so there was this pressure. I had three weeks to learn how to do a pas de deux and solo. In three weeks! It was a huge learning breakthrough, very exciting. The next milestone was three years later. I danced Giselle. My first full length principal role. Before that I actually broke my ankle. I had to come back from injury, train back and come back to strength and then it was okay to dance Giselle. It was big for me. I was a Coryphee in the company, my first time carrying the full-length show. It was really nerve wracking and it was exiting. And then I guess my last milestone is coming with the Mariinsky on tour to London. Coming back home! It was even more stressful because actually when you’re here… no one knows what happens, I mean, from the west. Of course pictures gets posted but when you go home… Your old company will go and look at your work and say ‘Okay, that’s the guy who was holding a spear, is he worth it? Why is he there?”. They are much more critical of you.
Yulia Savikovskaya: It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned that if anything happens here at Mariinsky nobody will know because I have also noticed that Russian opera and ballet have not been immensely covered by critics who usually review shows in London, Paris or Berlin. Does the situation still involve distance?
Xander Parish: I think so, yes. If you go to the West, they cover performances very thoroughly, but what happens here is not often covered… Dance Europe magazine has been here a lot however, they have been very good at covering my shows and my debuts. Dance Europe is the one western publication in ballet terms that has given me a lot of support, coming over to see my debuts, reporting back to the West what was happening to me here. They were a great support, really.
Yulia Savikovskaya: How much do you need or do you want to dramatize the role? ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a famous play, while the ballet is very different… Do you actually have to delve psychologically into stories behind ballets?
Xander Parish: I don’t do anything particularly special in regard to this. All I do is I put myself in the shoes of the person who I portray. I ask myself very simple questions, ‘If that was me, what would I do, how I would react and what would I feel?’. If can answer these questions to myself that would be natural. I don’t like seeing acting on stage that is not natural. I hate seeing anything that’s fake, forced or over the top.
Yulia Savikovskaya: In a ballet show, can you tell if something is fake?
Xander Parish: I can, yeah, for sure. If it doesn’t look genuine than it’s fake. If the dance of two lovers or the reaction looks rehearsed or forced that’s not real. It has to be absolutely natural in my opinion. My teacher in Royal Ballet was very good in teaching me how to have a natural reactions on stage. How to make it real. And that teacher was absolutely right. It’s the way to make the audience feel you emotions without it being forced. So I ask myself these three simple questions. If I’m Romeo and Juliet just died, and I heard she’s dead, if that was in real life, what would I feel, what would I do, how would I react? Just feel it for a second, and that emotion would be natural.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Do you favourite partners with whom this process happens more naturally than with others?
Xander Parish: Good question. I have a good rapport with [Alina] Somova, she’s a very beautiful dancer. I especially love working with Vika Teryoshkina, she gives very natural and beautiful reactions emotionally which are easy to emulate, feel and to go with. I think all the girls are amazing to be honest, I’m very lucky to dance with them. [Diana] Vishneva, I had the privilege dancing with her in Margaret and Arman and she was wonderful. It was more intense on the stage than in rehearsal, that’s why I liked it. I don’t like it when people want me to show emotions in rehearsal and I can’t do it naturally because for me it’s fake. And some people don’t get that. But this is the way I am, I can’t force it on the rehearsal, I can only do it on stage, in the actual real thing. But with Diana – she came alive in the performance, she was so full of feelings and emotions, it was amazing. I was really impressed.
Yulia Savikovskaya: There are modern choreographers who worked with you here, like Yuri Smekalov and Ilya Zhivoy. What do you think about modern Russian choreography?
Xander Parish: Modern Russian choreography has ups and downs, not all of it is in my taste, to be honest. I’m an enormous fan of Ilya Jivoy and Anton Pimonov. There are very good works by Max Petrov, I got to work with him. I especially like working with Ilya Jivoy, he is my favorite choreographer. Ilya has made pieces for local and international festivals, with him I got to perform specially created pieces made for me. That was very freeing. Ilya is great at making emotions to be the center of the stage, not just the physicality. I love working with Ilya, he’s an enormous talent.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What was you routine during the pandemic?
Xander Parish: The company very kindly arranged us to have zoom classes, so our teacher created a zoom group where we did a class together on zoom holding our radiators, holding out fridges, holding our doors. The company came together like a strong team, and we worked perfectly.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Do you think kids are a special kind of ballet audience? What are you highlights of experience with kids?
Xander Parish: Yeah, dancing for children is a special kind of show. Children always react differently than adults. The atmosphere in the theater filled with children immediately changes. You feel and you hear the gasps, little talks, even whispers – you know that they are there. As to the atmosphere of the room in the sense of acoustics – the air moves, there is a different atmosphere, you can feel it. I always feel the excitement from children. They watch and they believe. It’s very beautiful to occasionally see their little faces in the audience and they are like ‘ohhh…’ with big eyes looking back at you.
Yulia Savikovskaya: And is it easy to teach kids ballet?
Xander Parish: Yes, I think it’s the best education a child could have to be up close with professional dancers, professional artists. That’s the best place to learn. They can be on stage with us as extras or whatever during the performance and they can watch and learn. Again, you see them watch you with big eyes, it’s a privilege. I was this kid once and now it’s them!
Yulia Savikovskaya: What about the dancer’s challenges? Are there any physical things that you experience differently?
Xander Parish: Dances usually stay younger longer because they are physically working all the time. They have good health, good hearts, good metabolism and body weight because there’s a lot of physical exercise. So I think every problem with health they can encounter is outweighed by general wellbeing, nice routine and strength. Perhaps the only problem is physical exhaustion. I felt exhausted several times, physical exhaustion to the point when it’s hard to go on. It was difficult.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What would you say to someone who’s never been to the ballet performance but considers going for the first time?
Xander Parish: Okay, so. To someone who’s thinking about entering the ballet: there’s a whole world of beauty out there you can’t even imagine.
Yulia Savikovskaya: And what would you say to those who thinks of becoming a ballet dancer or of sending their kids to a ballet school?
Xander Parish: For those who’re thinking about taking up ballet themselves, I’d say it’s not a life to be taken lightly. It’s not an easy life. It’s everything or nothing. It’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle. So it there are children who want to take ballet dancing – fantastic! I would wholeheartedly say ‘go for it’. It’s an amazing life. Surely it can be difficult in terms of time and energy, but it is a privilege!