Diary of a dancer

Russian ballet dancers used to defect to the West, but two years ago Xander Parish left the Royal Ballet for St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet. Extracts from his diary, from his first Giselle in St Petersburg to Scheherezade in Abu Dhabi, give a vivid illustration of the life of a dancer

Monday 11 February 2013, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg

This evening, I am being promoted from peasant to prince – tonight is my debut as Albrecht in Giselle. How many times have I danced the role in my imagination: at the Royal [Ballet] I had a walk-on role during the hunt scene in Act I; at the Mariinsky, in my first two seasons, I danced a peasant. Now, I get the chance to put my theory into practice: a story ballet is about the development of emotion and character; wonderful technique is lovely to see, but it's the emotion of a piece that does it for me.  Tonight, I want the audience to understand who is Albrecht.

I’m in love with a new Giselle: yesterday, Sveta [Svetlana Ivanova] did something unpleasant to her knee (I heard a loud snap from across the studio), so, tonight I have another Giselle – Ekaterina Osmolkina. All those rehearsals with Sveta, and now she can't dance; I can see the pain in her knee, and in her face; trying to comfort her, I tell her there’ll be another time, lots of times. One day to rehearse with Katya! Luckily, she is very experienced, and we have danced other roles together.

I’m ready. These past few weeks, I have been rehearsing with Yuri [Fateyev, the Artistic Director], because Igor [Petrov, teacher] has been away. This evening will show if Yuri’s faith in me has been worth it; if it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be in London watching somebody else dance Albrecht, thinking, ‘If only I could do that.’

Ekaterina Osmolkina & Xander Parish in Giselle. Photo (c) Valentin Baranovsky

My mum is in the auditorium with some of my friends. Well, I’m guaranteed some applause…

18.55: I practise some poses, a few steps; adjust my costume, tell myself I’m not nervous. I dip my shoes in the rosin box, again. From behind the curtain, I can hear the hum and buzz of the audience, taking their seats and talking. The first violinist leads the tuning of the orchestra. Applause – the conductor is taking the podium. The audience takes a few moments to fall silent. I can hear some coughing. 

19.05: The music starts. ‘Places!’  Curtain up. Igor [Petrov] came back yesterday, to find me flirting with a new Giselle! He stands in the wings with me, and then literally pushes me on at exactly the right time, for my first entrance! Feels great. I get some applause from the audience: some of my colleagues out front; mum; it's a knowledgeable crowd here – they know when it's a debut. 

'Curtain down. It's over. Suddenly, I am surrounded by wellwishers. Yuri is thrilled: "Now you are a real Russian artist!"

I run to the rustic cottage, stage left, from where I will emerge as a peasant prince. But I haven't done a rehearsal with the scenery, and being inside the cottage really throws me. In the studio I just had to imagine what it would be like, suddenly I don't know what to do next! I look at Reuben [Bobovnikov] in panic; he is playing the role of my servant; and he has danced the role of Albrecht many times. I almost shout at him: ‘Shto dalshe? Shto mne delat?’ (‘What’s next? What do I do!’). Rubik thinks for a few milliseconds, and then simply says, ‘Ruki!’ (‘Hands!’); showing me the gesticulation of my hands.  That’s all I need; it all clicks back into place, I run out of the cottage, and everything is fine!! Phew…

No time to think about the lack of rehearsal with Katya; her experience takes the place of any practice. No nerves.

19.55: During the interval, Igor keeps my courage up. Katya too. And Yuri. I feel like a prize racehorse.

20.00: Act II. The stage feels huge – enormous! Especially when I’m on it, alone, for such big chunks. By the time the famous solo comes up – the big test – I’m moving on autopilot, in a good way, not feeling my legs, feeling for the emotion in the dancing. Albrecht has played a deceitful game, Giselle is dead and her spirit returns to haunt his nightmares; pain and remorse… it’s now or never to show them what I can do. I summon up every last ounce of energy I can squeeze out of my legs, arms, head, hands and feet; and launch into the last series of grands jetés, moving diagonally right across the length of the stage; as high as I can reach for every jump. Rehearsals forgotten, the emotion of the performance takes over, and I try to make the most spectacular, and painful, dying dive on to Giselle's grave. 

The curtain goes down, but somehow I don't move; all around me the corps girls come running on to take their places for the curtain call. I snap to, and drag myself over the line, still on my knees, into the wings. This gets a big laugh from my friends watching behind the side curtains. 

I come out on to the stage with Katya. Loud applause. Cheers. I bow, she curtsies. More bows and curtsies. Flowers. The conductor comes out. Curtain down. It's over. Suddenly, I am surrounded by wellwishers. Yuri claps me on the back; he is thrilled: "Seechas ti nastoyashi ruskii artist!" ("Now you are a real Russian artist!"). 

Xander Parish at Mariinsky Theatre. Photo (c) Venetia Dearden

Tuesday 5 March 2013, St P 

A punishing schedule ahead: tonight is the first of six shows for me, during the weeklong Mariinsky International Ballet Festival. This evening, I'm dancing the principal male role in Balanchine's Emeralds, opposite Maria Shirinkina. Should be okay – Masha and I have a very good rapport and we’ve danced many times together. 

11.00: Grigory Chicherin is here, guest teaching the morning class during the festival. He danced with the Kirov, and now teaches at the Dutch National Ballet School where his director is Chris Powney who was my teacher at the Royal Ballet Upper School – it's a small ballet world! He gives a very nice class, clear and thorough.

12.30 After class there's a run through of Emeralds for the corps on stage, which I go to, to get a feel for it, ahead of the show. 

13.45: Lunch in one of the theatre canteens – buckwheat, like brown rice but almost nutty, beef stroganoff, washed down with compote, like fruit squash; and some sweet pastries with apple inside which are so good when fresh from the kitchens. I make a mental note to find some time to go food shopping. How much time do I need? Fruit and veg on Lermontov, the couple from Kyrgyzstan – she speaks a little English; bakery and fish shop on Dekabristov; the farmers shop further down, for meat and dairy stuff; dried fruit and nuts from the Armenian girl. An hour should do it. Today, I don't have an hour.

14.00 Quick rehearsal for the Grand pas in La Bayadère, which I’m dancing on Thursday. 

15.00: Rehearsal with Yuri Smekalov for his new work, which we’re doing on Saturday as part of a Young Choreographers programme. There are three couples in the piece, and I'm dancing with Keenan Kampa, my American colleague, who joined us just less than a year ago. The piece is still a long way from being ready – choreography isn't finished.

18.00: Time for a very quick something to eat, and a quick breather before heading to the dressing rooms located next to the stage, to get my make-up on and hair done. A bit of stretching on stage, and jogging around to get warm before the costume ladies help me into my costume, and literally sew me into it. One of my ballet shoes is missing. It's a  drawstring which means it's hardly staying on my foot! It can’t be happening! I ask the ladies to sew my shoes to my tights – wouldn't want them falling off mid-jump! All dressed up, I try a few steps with Masha, and then it's places, and curtain up. The opening tableau gets immediate applause, which is nice! 

22.00: Curtain down. Overall, the show wasn't bad, but let’s just say there were a few hiccups – I had to put my hand on to the stage to steady myself after landing one jump, and in the coda Masha somehow went on the wrong side of the corps girls, which made a bit of a tangle for us. Director very unhappy. He said it looked as if we had only done one rehearsal rather than the five we did. Masha gets upset. I bite my tongue – the Director is always right.  I am consoled a little bit when Grisha Chicherin said that we looked good together, and he enjoyed the show, which was encouraging. One down, five to go.

Thursday 7 March 2013, St P

Last night was Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream. I danced in the second act divertissement, one of six couples in a dance that's actually quite exhausting for the corps de ballet. This one went well, and the répétiteur [who teaches the steps and interpretation of the roles] was happy. Amazing to think that Balanchine himself danced on this stage at the beginning of the 20th century, before, and just after the 1917 Revolution. When I’m dancing his work, I can see what he took from the old classical ballet of Petipa, and what he made himself. Once again, the enormity of being here strikes home.

12.00 to 18.00: Rehearsal, after rehearsal, after rehearsal. People always ask me ‘How do you remember all those different steps for so many different ballets.’ Sometimes, I don’t…

Tonight is La Bayadère, with Vadim Muntagirov from English National Ballet, dancing Solor. I'm friendly with Vad; he trained at the Royal Ballet School for three years while I was working with the Royal. He danced really beautifully. Watching in the wings, the Mariinsky guys were very impressed by his technique, saying, ‘But of course, he’s Russian!’  I was quick to remind them that he trained, at least for a bit, in England! As for me, the Grand pas went well. Three down, three to go.

Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone 

Saturday 9 March 2013, St P

Today is a first: two solo performances in one day! 15.00 the premiere of Intenso, the piece by Yuri Smekalov for the Young Choreographers programme; and 19.00 the Pas de trois in Swan Lake.

The last few nights have been late ones, rehearsing Intenso. It’s been tough: after the shows on stage, we’ve been going back upstairs to the studios, and working till 23.30. Everything was ready, then this morning we're told that one of the six dancers in the piece is sick, and won’t be performing. I’m expecting the piece to be pulled but no: ‘This is the Mariinsky…’

12.30: Unbelievable! After morning class, Yuri the choreographer rounds up the five of us left in his piece, and we restructure while he re-choreographs as we go... Talk about last minute, and absolutely not what I could have wished for on such a day. Added to that, I’ve been more concerned about this piece than any of the other roles I've been doing this week, not because it’s more important, but because it’s all so new. 

15.00 Somehow, perhaps because of all the drama, we really pull together as a team on stage, and we get through it, unscathed...phew!

17.30 Just enough time to grab some food, gather myself together, before heading back to the stage to get back into costume, for the second time today; this time for Swan Lake. Normally, dancers rest up a little before a show, for a demanding number like the Pas de trois. Me, I’m praying that my legs will still be connected to the rest of me. 

'Time has a different meaning to a dancer: you live your life to a rigid timetable of rehearsal and performance; and then by age thirty-five or forty, you've got to know what to do next with your life'

19.20: I take it very steady at first, especially in the opening section with the two girls on either side of me; then I think to myself 'Come on you can do better' I dig down into whatever reserves I have left, and really go for it, pushing the solo as much as I can. The stage gives you the energy to go on, long after your body is saying ‘Enough!’  It’s one of those moments when it all comes together – pirouettes, jumps, turns, hands, feet, line – and it all seems worth it. Igor [Petrov, my teacher] is in the wings, willing me on, and when I come off, he looks as happy as I feel: ‘Khorosho, Sasha! Good!’ ‘Good,’ when spoken by a Russian teacher, means a lot. And Yuri [Fateyev] is pleased. Yes! 

20.00: No time to enjoy the applause – I wriggle out of my costume, and rush up to the 4th studio to work with Renato Arismendi from Stuttgart. Renato is here teaching a solo called Ballet 101, with choreography by Eric Gauthier; I’m the understudy to Vladimir [Volodya] Shklyarov. Volodya is performing it tomorrow in the gala programme. It's a great piece and fun to do, but very demanding: no music, only a voice command; the performer goes through ballet positions numbered 1 to 100; then the voice gives random numbers, and we have to keep up! Still in my makeup, we rehearse for an hour till I collapse on a chair. Time to go home? Almost… I run back downstairs, just in time to catch the Black Swan Pas de deux.

Madness, I know, but time has a different meaning to a dancer: you live your life to a rigid timetable of rehearsal and performance; and then by age thirty-five or forty, you've got to know what to do next with your life…

Sunday 10 March 2013, St P

11.12: Sore this morning after yesterday’s mania, but feeling a lot lighter, having got two of the hardest shows of the week done and dusted. I’m late for the 11am class. 

12.30: Straight after class, a run through on stage of Etudes, for this evening’s closing gala. I'm dancing in the corps de ballet, but I'm in the front line for most of it, so it's very exposed; and it’s a demanding piece. When this rehearsal is over, I’m looking forward to a rest before the show.

13.30: ‘You’re wanted, Sasha!’ The news comes through that [principal dancer] Danila Korsuntsev has hurt his back, and they’re thinking about casting me for the Golden Slave in Scheherazade in Abu Dhabi, in three days time! I'm already scheduled to perform Les Sylphides in the second of two shows; now they want me to team up with Sofia Gumerova, me as the slave to her Scheherazade. BUT she’s in London until tomorrow! Why me? Because in January, when [former Bolshoi star dancer] Andris Liepa was here, setting it, I was watching at the studio door, and one of the girls was without a partner…

"You’re wanted, Sasha!" The news comes through that [principal dancer] Danila Korsuntsev has hurt his back, and they’re thinking about casting me for the Golden Slave in Scheherazade in Abu Dhabi, in three days time!' 

It’s good that I have a Russian name, although nobody here, either, calls me Alexander; I’ve got so used to people calling me Sasha. Well, Diaghilev insisted on giving all his non-Russian dancers Russian names, so I’m following in a great tradition.

14.00 I try to rest, but in my mind I’m already rehearsing the Slave.

19.00: I come down to the stage early to give moral support to Chase Finlay, who’s here from New York City Ballet, dancing Balanchine’s Apollo. He's stressed out ‘cos he's been giving interviews for hours, and it’s only thirty mins before curtain up; and, of course, he’s had no time to warm up. I’ve become so Russian – I tell him sometimes it's better that way, just go for it, à la russe! I stand in the wings, holding his bottle of water, ready for when ever he comes off, and needs a quick reviver. It’s a great performance: ‘I told you so!’ 

20.15: After the interval I watch as much of the diverts [divertissements] as I can. Volodya [Shklyarov] looks good in Ballet 101. I'm doing it in my head as I watch! 

21.10: Make up and into my costume. 

22.03: Harald Lander's Etudes really is a study in studying, front and back of stage: there's always an atmosphere before we start with a lot of very focused people going through the choreography and patterns, in the last few minutes before curtain up. We start. A few minutes in, and I can already feel myself draining away; after one section of reverse assemblées, I have a few heaving seconds in the wings; my head is spinning, and I hold on to the curtains for support. The week is catching up with me. Back out on stage, for the Pas de quatre – head up, smile, dance, don't collapse.

23.50: At last, the glamour! There’s a glitzy end-of-festival party at the Astoria Hotel; only, by the time I've showered, got some smart clothes together, and got to the hotel, most of the food has gone. I’m starving, but it’s fun. It’s a smart crowd – Russian and international; quite a few balletomanes, eager to talk; and I realise that I’m now on their radar. I get asked this question a lot: ‘Aren't you afraid, living in Russia?’ ‘Afraid of what?’ I reply. I tell them you get used to the bears wandering down the street...

I’m getting better at this social stuff. We live a monastic life; I don’t mean that we don’t go out, don’t get to walk around the city, but that we live in an enclosed world. We travel a lot, but we’re lucky if we have much time to see the sights. I can tell you, in minute detail, the layout of a hundred theatres across the world, but not what the cities look like. That’s often why dancers marry other dancers; who else could live with this routine? Although conversely, some dancers will only be with non-dancers to attempt an outside life!

With Volodya Shklyarov, his wife Masha Shirinkina, Chase [Finlay], Renato [Arismendi] and Marcelo Gomes from ABT [American Ballet Theatre], we pile into Volodya's car, packed like sardines, and head off to Khochu Kharcho, a late-night Georgian restaurant on Sennaya Ploschad; infamous area, if you know your Dostoevsky. My Russian’s still not up to scratch, but I do manage to translate the name of the restaurant into English, as ‘I want some kharcho soup.’ Fun night!

Scheherezade with Sofia Gumerova; Les Sylphides. Photos courtesy of Abu Dhabi Festival

Monday 11 March 2013, St P

Wake up very late – too late for class – and make some scrambled eggs, before heading across the road to the theatre. I make a mental note to tidy my room. I found out a few days ago that Nijinsky lived less than a hundred metres away from our hostel; that thought doesn't overwhelm me as much it might have done before. And he had his mother to look after him.

12.30: First rehearsal, Les Sylphides which I'm performing with Oksana Skoryk on Friday in Abu Dhabi. This is our first and only studio rehearsal. We danced the pas de deux from this ballet, together, a couple of years ago for a gala in the Hermitage Theatre, so it comes together very quickly. 

14.00 Straight off to meet Danila [Korsuntsev] on the upstairs rehearsal stage. He’s offered to take me through Scheherazade, which is really nice of him – he must be gutted about not dancing.

16.00 Sofia [Gumerova] isn't back yet from London, and Alisa Sodelova steps in to help me. I think that I know the part, but Danila’s Golden Slave is very slightly different from the choreography I learned in January, and when Tatiana Vasilievna [Assistant Director] walks in to check up on me, she thinks that I don't know the steps. Now, I'm concerned they won't give me the show. I tell her I’ll be ready.

17.00: Right, practice makes perfect, Sasha Parish. I bolt down some food; then find a free studio. One of the off-duty rehearsal pianists very kindly teaches me the counts for the various solos in the coda. On stage, in the actual performance there’s a lot going on – the harem’s all over the place! And trying to stay in step with the music isn’t going to be easy. The pianist plays the coda through for me, over and over again, until I’m certain I’ve got it. 

21.00 Pack my suitcase.

Tuesday 12 March 2013, St P/Abu Dhabi

13.00: At last; the one and only Scheherazade rehearsal with Sofia!  I'm in the studio first thinking through it and when she arrives, we just look at each other and laugh knowingly! She has the experience to be relaxed. The pressure of learning such a big role, in such a limited time, forces me to be as calm as she is. 

14.45: I shower, run across the road to collect my suitcase, and then on to the bus, waiting in Theatre Square. It takes less than forty-five minutes to get to the airport. The usual palaver: security, check-in, security, TGI Friday food, security again; and settle into my seat for the five hour flight to Dubai. Finally get to watch Skyfall! 

Midnight-ish: Land in Dubai. Airport like a palace. The warm weather is wonderful after the Russian freeze. During the bus ride to Abu Dhabi, a real surprise: a text from Alina Cojacaru [principal dancer at the Royal Ballet] inviting me to dance in a charity gala she is putting on at Sadler's Wells on 12 May. The remainder of the journey is spent discussing with Alina via text what I could dance; we settle on Ballet 101, the solo piece I’ve been rehearsing in St P. It has technique and humour, nice combination for my return to London as a Mariinsky dancer. Haven't performed there since the Mariinsky's 2011 summer season at Covent Garden. We arrive at the hotel very late, starving hungry, and it’s croque monsieurs in the hotel bar.

Xander Parish in Scheherezade. Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Festival 

Thursday 14 March 2013, Abu Dhabi

12.00 Sunshine! Dress rehearsal for this evening’s first night of the Fokine programme: Les Sylphides, Spectre de la rose, Dying Swan and Scheherazade. Tonight, is my very first performance as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade; then, tomorrow, the Young Poet in Les Sylphides, but I've hardly even thought about that. I just hope Yuri [Fateyev, Artistic Director] never reads my diary. He’s taking something of a risk with this because he hasn’t seen me do anything in Scheherazade yet, as he only arrived last night from Moscow. 

Dress rehearsal goes well. With Sofia [Gumerova], who knows better than to push it, we just mark most of the Pas de deux, but, me, showing my inexperience, I end up doing almost everything else full out. Stage is a little slippery, and my foot slips from under me, landing one of the big jumps. Well, better a slip in the rehearsal than the show. Afterwards, I’m really worried I've overdone it. This evening, should I take it easy in the Pas de deux, and keep the best for the coda? No, that’s not the way. Have to get by on adrenaline. 

14.20: Back to the hotel for plenty to eat and a bit of rest. I wonder what the Arabians will think about our bringing Scheherazade to Arabiacoals to Newcastle.

18.00: Amazing costume for the Golden Slave. I look like Rudolph Valentino in The Sheikh. This role couldn't be more different to the Les Sylphides or Giselle roles I've been used to so far; this role demands sex appeal and I'm only too aware of the shoes I'm stepping into, such as those of Farukh Ruzimatov who was very much a sex symbol in this role. Needs to be hot stuff.

19.00 I watch most of the first part of the programme from the wings. We’ve been keeping the best for last (of course, that’s what I'm hoping). Scheherazade is a big, thrilling spectacle. Powerful music. Dramatic. Colourful. Exotic. Erotic. I love the movement from languor to electrifying, supercharged passion. I give it everything I’ve got; the jumps are big, and the turns go well. Abu Dhabi loves Scheherazade, and we get a standing ovation!

Yuri comes backstage; he is very excited by the show and really pleased. He even gives me corrections for ‘next time,’ so that's a positive sign. 

22.30: I’m alone in the dressing room. Yuri has made me think: Russian ballet is different; it’s in the blood. You tell people you’re a ballet dancer in Russia, and it’s as if you’ve told them you drive a Lamborghini. This evening, I am not – not as much as I used to be – the English dancer at the Mariinsky. Can't stop thinking what an experience this has been. At last, everything seems to make sense, and I feel I'm where I'm meant to be. The doubts have gone, and I feel hugely blessed. Now, better go and remember my solo in Les Sylphides for tomorrow.

Thumbnail: Xander Parish in Giselle (gala pas de deux). Photo (c) Gene Schiavone

About the author

Xander Parish, born in Hull, is the first British ballet dancer to be employed by the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. xanderparish.com

Subjects