An elegant dancer with princely authority, Xander Parish is the first Brit to join the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. As a child he trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and joined the company, along with his sister, in 2005. Since moving to Russia to become a member of the Mariinsky in 2010, he has danced leads in Giselle, Schéhérazade, Chopiniana (Les Sylphides), Swan Lake, and in Balanchine ballets including Apollo, Jewels, Serenade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Symphony in C. He has also been cast in works by Alexei Ratmansky and Benjamin Millepied.
I came to ballet in the same way as countless other male dancers—I followed my sister. When I was 8 and she was 7, I saw her performing in a school show and, turning to my mum, I asked why I wasn’t on the stage too—though I’m pretty certain it was the draw of performing that appealed to me rather than ballet. Only after I started attending the Royal Ballet School at age 11 did I develop the love and respect for this beautiful art form that became my life. Upon graduation I joined The Royal Ballet, where I learned the virtue of patience. I loved being onstage with dancers such as Roberto Bolle and Federico Bonelli, but I was at the bottom of a large company and promotion was elusive.
However frustrating that time was, I know it wasn’t wasted. After all, it is the struggle out of the cocoon that gives the butterfly strength to fly. One day a new guest teacher arrived as was normal in the company, but this one was Russian with an energy that was tangible, and he gave me the attention in class that I’d been craving. After two weeks he returned to Russia and things carried on. But as it turned out, this great ballet master was Yuri Fateyev, who six months later became director of the Mariinsky Ballet! Yuri didn’t forget me and wanted me to join his company. I thought I wasn’t good enough, but he saw potential, so after a lot of talking to my parents, thinking, and praying, I understood this was a God-given opportunity that I should not miss.
I left London to join my new mentor in 2010. We spent hours in the studio, his meticulous eye for technique homed in on me, which I thrived on, but crucially he let me learn onstage. My first lead role came four weeks after moving to Russia. Dancing the Poet in Chopiniana (Les Sylphides), I felt elated. I also felt relief that I got through it, mixed with satisfaction, as if all the previous years had been for that one show and now I could retire content—but I was 23 and that was just the beginning. The more I was onstage, the more I wanted to be onstage with something new to try. I find fascination in picking through the character of a role and trying to give the audience something they can relate to. It’s such a joy to do this! Acting and becoming the role gives it meaning for me, and through this, my dancing can flow more easily than if I was only focusing on technique. This was especially true when I returned to London last July to perform Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose and Schéhérazade, where the characters are almost opposites. Showing this to the home crowd was exhilarating!
Dancing for me was always about the performing, but now I have an audience—an international audience—to do it for.
Photo of Parish as Apollo. By Valentin Baronovsky, Courtesy Mariinsky.