The first time I met Xander Parish, he couldn’t see me. Literally. We’d arranged to meet outside the Mariinsky theatre in St Peterburg and as I neared the historic building I spotted him scanning the crowd for me. I walked up to him and but he didn’t notice me because I barely came up to his chin.
I hesitated for a moment, wondering how to catch his attention before tugging at his coat, feeling very much like a small child. He looked down, completely startled, and greeted me with a hug and an exclamation of, “But you’re so small!”
I am, admittedly, slightly vertically challenged at 5”1, but let’s be honest – Xander Parish is very tall. He’s so renowned for his long, elegant balletic lines that they are mentioned in just about every review of his dancing. It’s a quality honed at the Mariinsky, in a rags-to-principal-dancer-riches story.
A friend of Xander’s from his Royal Ballet School years once told me that Xander had been like Bambi on ice: a tangle of long, gangly arms and limbs, until, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he would do something brilliant. The British may have felt that his rough diamond would take too much effort to polish, but the Russians saw his potential for brilliance. He went from wilting in the corps of the Royal Ballet to dancing an unrelenting schedule of principal roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Marguerite and Armand, and more. In a moment of calculated poetic justice, his promotion to principal dancer with the Mariinsky took place after a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, the stage where he’d spent many hours as a Royal Ballet dancer blending in with the scenery.
His is the sort of fairytale-esque career trajectory young dancers dream of. But Xander will be the first to tell you his journey was “very, very, very, VERY difficult.” That’s four verys, count them all.
“I didn’t think I could pass my first 6 months there,” Xander admits to me, looking pensive. “I didn’t understand the language. I was very lonely – I didn’t have any friends.”
Xander performing Swan Lake with Viktoria Tereshkina during Mariinsky’s 2017 tour to London
Pic: Tristam Kenton
There was the added pressure of having been recruited by the director of the Mariinsky, Yuri Fateyev. “He said he would make me a prince,” says Xander. “That I would dance Siegfried, Albrecht, all those roles.” Along with the promises of balletic glory came pressure. “Yuri had these huge expectations of me, and for a while he was going faster than I could cope with.”
There were days it was hard for him to get up and keep going, he tells me.
“But I took it one day at at a time,” he says. “Stick a straight course, and keep going. Don’t stop.” His first role as a Mariinsky dancer was a soloist part in Raymonda – it was clear that there would no more spear-holding from then on.
Russian companies do not have a reputation for hiring outside of their ranks, and when Xander joined the Mariinsky, people were curious: waiting to see if he sank of swam. He was now not merely treading water career-wise, but slicing through the waves on a speedboat.
And that was the thing that I was always curious about – what is it about Xander Parish that enabled him to be the one person who managed to succeed in the cauldron of Russian ballet. It‘s something I keep coming back to throughout our conversation as I try to pinpoint the formula behind his success.
I ask him point blank – how did he manage? “Well I’ve had the privilege of my mum and dad’s support and my sister’s support,” he says. “I’ve got a strong family, and I’ve got faith. I’ve managed to get through the problems I’ve had with God’s help.”
So there was that – faith. But surely there must be more.
“And if I try my best, if I give it my best shot, then I cannot be unhappy with the outcome.” He continues.
It’s a strange thing to hear from a ballet dancer. Critics are hard, and Russian ballet fans infamously brutal with their opinions. It can wear down the most resilient people, but even that can’t compare to how hard dancers can be on themselves.
I don’t remember ever hearing a dancer say what Xander was telling me: “I don’t care what anyone else thinks – as long as I do my best, I’m happy with my work. I work hard but I work intelligently. I eat well, pace myself, make sure I get enough rest.”
I ask what motivates him. “I just wanted to succeed. I wanted to prove Yuri right.” He says. “I was determined to succeed. I was the first Brit to do this and I didn’t want to be the one who conked out!”
Xander wearing his C&V Assemble tee.
Pic: Andrej Uspenski
He laughs. I smile, but for a different reason: I recognise that we are again in familiar territory – the single-minded determination of ballet dancers.
Many of them relentlessly pursue perfection – it’s what enables them to make an exacting passage of dance look as effortless as paddling in a baby pool.
I once joked with a friend in the corps that principals must all be a bit nuts because of how intense their dedication to ballet was – it sometimes seems like they sacrificed everything at the altar of ballet. A trait like that can be destructive, but Xander couples that with the ability to trust. In God, but also – or perhaps as a consequence of this – in himself.
A self-proclaimed Royal Ballet boy through and through, he was convinced that the British company was the place where his career would live and die. The thought of leaving never crossed his mind – he ignored Fatayev’s first invitation to go to Russia sent via a friend. “I thought psh, yeah, he must be exaggerating!”
Xander was willing to wait in the wings until the Royal tossed an opportunity his way, but a life of holding spears is not what any dancer would envision for themselves either.
He tried to take matters into his own hands, and made a few attempts to get noticed by upper management. “Hare-brained schemes,” he now merrily refers to them as, in his typically self-deprecating manner.
One involved telling Royal Ballet’s artistic director Monica Mason he wanted to participate in the Varna Ballet Competition, hoping she would see his determination and give him a solo instead. (She didn’t, but did give him permission to go to Varna, to his horror. He trained hard but didn’t make it past the first round.)
The other involved telling her that Yuri Fateyev had asked him to join the Mariinsky. He hoped this would finally get her attention. “You’re a very nice boy,” she had told him. “But I want to dance.” He said. She couldn’t promise him that. He accepted Fateyev’s offer on the same day.
Xander would tell you that he’d been pushed into his decision, but really, he was merely nudged. He could have stayed at the Royal and waited on his dream, but he made a calculated decision to let go.
He didn’t flounce off to Russia on an impulsive huff – he tells me he knew that he had the potential to dance leading roles, if someone was willing to nurture him. Fateyev was willing to do that. There’s also no mistaking that if you’re venturing into strange new balletic territory, the artistic director is a powerful ally to have in your corner.
Pic: Andrej Uspenski
As the first Briton to join the Mariinsky, his change of employer earned a ripple of press attention. The prospect of not succeeding in Russia could have been a terrible burden to someone else – “what if I don’t make it? What would people think of me? Would anyone else want to hire me?”
But Xander was able let go because he’s able to step outside his situation and assess it through a wide lens. “It was tough. I was very aware it might not work out.” He says to me. “But I knew there was a chance that the Royal would probably let me back in. If they didn’t I could’ve gone to ENB, Scottish Ballet, Birmingham. I could’ve gone somewhere that would’ve spoke English. I would’ve been all right.”
And the knowing that it would somehow be alright, that no situation is unsalvageable no matter how rough it gets that allows him to keep putting one perfectly turned-out foot after another forward.
It’s a quality that served him well at his lowest point – an injury that sidelined him for 5 months, putting put the breaks on his fledgling Mariinsky career. “I was 24, 25. I hoped I could come back from that – there are girls who have babies at a later age and come back!”
He looks at me and his brow furrows. “You know, people say to me, “How do you deal with this stuff – nerves and pressure? But what do you mean “deal with?””
“Well,” I say. “It’s hard not to worry about messing up – especially when you’ve put in all this effort, you don’t want to have it not work out.”
He frowns, uncomprehending. “But there’s no point thinking about nerves.” He says. “I’ve got nerves, but there’s no having to deal with them – you just go on stage and dance.”
“I mean,” I say dubiously. “Nobody wants to mess up their shot. If you’re debuting a role at the Mariinsky or performing at the Prix, you can feel like that’s your one chance, all that work for that moment. That pressure can get to people.”
“But what are you going to do — start meditating?” He says incredulously. To him, the answers are simple. “I’m a dancer, that’s what I can do – get up on stage and dance. I deal with nerves by not focusing on them.”
“But-” I try again, but he’s not having it.
“You just can’t think like that.” He tells me. “You can control your thoughts, you know.”
I didn’t think it was quite as easy as that for most people (and by most people I really mean myself), but decide against saying that aloud. The last time Xander and I didn’t agree on something it turned into several hours of dinner conversation politely but vehemently disagreeing over a whole gamut of issues from the trivial to political (it was a fun night).
Dancing Eric Gauthier’s Ballet 101.
Pic: Emma Kauldhar
As we spoke, I was struck by how he possessed an air of self-assurance that didn’t cross the borders into arrogance. I remark that his confidence must be an asset, and his answer only reinforces my initial thought: “Not in myself, but I trust in God. God gave me these talents and I trust him. I was nobody at school, in my class, at the Royal.”
Not true, I remind him. You were an excellent spear-holder.
“Well not the best one, but top 10,” he chuckles with the assurance that his spear-carrying days are behind him. “But I was never good enough by myself. I trusted in God’s help – and that continues to this day.”
And I realise the secret to his success was marvellously uncomplicated – it was straightforward, determined, remarkable faith. And, having really long lines. And also – he really wants you all to know this – pizza.
Header image: Sveta Avvkum