Xander Parish, who fled St Petersburg in March, talks about his performance this weekend with Russian and Ukrainian artistes
When the dancer Xander Parish made his return to the London stage in Swan Lake, visiting Covent Garden five years ago as a member of a renowned Russian ballet company, it was a moment of triumph. The Yorkshire-born star was, after all, the first Brit to have been accepted by the Mariinsky Ballet – known as the Kirov in Soviet times. And after the curtain came down the company promoted Parish to the status of principal dancer.
How times change. This March Parish turned his back on his new home in St Petersburg. He and his Russian wife, the dancer Anastasia Demidova, fled the country in protest at the invasion of Ukraine in February. On 12 November, Parish was due to take a further stand.
The 36-year-old drew together a one-off company of leading ballet dancers with links to Ukraine and Russia to perform Reunited in Dance. A special performance staged in Costa Mesa, California, it was to mark both the sorrow and the solidarity of the exiled dancers on stage.
“My wife and I left because we do not support the invasion,” Parish told the Observer, “but this weekend we all celebrate dance together, with other dancers who have trained in the Russian ballet tradition, which we still love. It is one of the richest things Russia has and I still believe in it.” Designing the programme for the show, he combined some of his favourite pieces of Russian and western choreography. “I wanted to gather us all, to be able to reunite us in our love of dance,” he said. “The whole bunch of us are so grateful to be back working again.”
Like Parish, many of the other performers have left prominent Russian ballet companies, including the Bolshoi, the Mikhailovsky Ballet and the Stanislavsky Theatre, in response to the invasion. Their appearance together at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County has been backed by the Segerstrom family, who are Californian arts philanthropists. Parish said he is grateful to them, and to all participating dancers, when personal circumstances make these decision risky.
“There’s a big pressure on Russian dancers to condemn what is happening, understandably, but it is tricky. I am uniquely placed to speak, really, as a westerner coming out of Russia,” he said. “I can see both sides of this picture. I also see how difficult it is to get the balance right.
“On the one hand you would not want to find yourself employing someone in favour of invading a neighbouring country. On the other hand, you know the arts must keep some degree of separation from politics. It is a fine balance for dancers too, if we want artistic freedom, because you also don’t want to find yourself performing alongside someone who stands for things you don’t agree with.
“Lots of people don’t want to speak out if they have family in Russia. That is for their own conscience to deal with. Our performance is for those of us who’ve left the country and still want to perform.”
After fleeing to Estonia, Parish missed his regular stage performances. “I had to go through a long period of not dancing, which was extremely frustrating and difficult. In the same way race horses need to race, dancers need to dance. Anything other than that is not great, although you can train where you can. Performance creates a self-fulfilling, virtuous circle. It keeps your skills and your stamina going.”
The dancer, who was born in North Ferriby and first danced in Hull before winning a coveted place at the Royal Ballet School, said his decision to leave Russia was not immediate.
“When the invasion began it wasn’t clear exactly what was happening, as Russia had been playing territorial games for a while. It became more apparent when flights from Europe were suddenly cancelled and it was prudent to get on the other side of the border.”
Other dancers have since shared harrowing escape stories with Parish. “Although we were fairly safe, it was difficult for my wife and I in Estonia. We weren’t allowed backstage in some theatres simply because we had come from Russia, even though we left because we disagreed.”
In September Parish joined the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo. The artistic director there, Ingrid Lorentzen, had followed his career and invited him to join them.
He does not regret his original decision to travel to Russia 12 years ago. “I had the most amazing adventure of the kind I could never have guessed at,” he said. “I’d expected to stay for about six months, maybe a year, to get some experience with a different kind of teaching and tradition. I wanted to learn. My only desire was to improve myself as a dancer, and then return to London.”
Now Parish has said farewell to a city that had became home. “I can’t go back in the foreseeable future. Of course, I miss the Russian countryside and the culture. There are a million things I love,” he said.
Selections from La Bayadère, Swan Lake and Le Corsaire were chosen for the programme, as well as Paquita, a Russian staple, and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Parish has also choreographed a piece performed to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album. “This is a big reunion for us to have that feeling of comradeship and bringing us back together to perform as a family again,” he said.