When dancer Xander Parish returns to the London stage in Swan Lake, visiting Covent Garden five years ago as a member of a famous Russian ballet company, it was a moment of triumph. The Yorkshire-born star was, after all, the first Briton to be accepted by the Mariinsky Ballet – known as Kirov in Soviet times. And after the curtain fell, the company promoted Parish to principal dancer status.
How times change. This March, the parish turned its back on its new home in St. Petersburg. He and his Russian wife, dancer Anastasia Demidova, fled the country to protest the invasion of Ukraine in February. On November 12, Parish was to take up a new position.
The 36-year-old has assembled a unique company of top ballet dancers with ties to Ukraine and Russia to perform United in the dance. A special show staged in Costa Mesa, California, it was to mark both the grief and the solidarity of the exiled dancers on stage.
“My wife and I left because we don’t support the invasion,” Parish told the Observer, “but this weekend we are all celebrating dance together, with other dancers who have trained in the tradition of Russian ballet, which we still love. It is one of the richest things in Russia and I still believe in it. In designing the program for the show, he combined some of his favorite pieces from Russian and Western choreography. “I wanted to bring us all together, so we could come together in our love of dance,” he said. “The whole group of us are so grateful to be back at work.”
Like Parish, many other performers left prominent Russian ballet companies, including the Bolshoi, the Mikhailovsky Ballet, and the Stanislavsky Theater, in response to the invasion. Their appearance together at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County was supported by the Segerstrom family, who are California arts philanthropists.. Parish said he’s grateful to them and all participating dancers when personal circumstances make those decisions risky.
“There is a lot of pressure on Russian dancers to condemn what is happening, it’s understandable, but it’s delicate. I’m uniquely positioned to speak, really, as a Westerner coming from Russia,” he said. “I can see both sides of this picture. I also see how difficult it is to find the right balance.
“On the one hand, you wouldn’t want to find yourself employing someone in favor of invading a neighboring country. On the other hand, you know that the arts must keep a certain distance from politics. It’s also a good balance for dancers, if we want artistic freedom, because you also don’t want to end up playing alongside someone who stands up for things you don’t agree with.
“A lot of people don’t want to speak out if they have family in Russia. It is up to their own conscience to deal with it. Our performance is for those of us who have left the country and still want to perform.
After fleeing to Estonia, Parish missed her regular stage performances. “I had to go a long time without dancing, which was extremely frustrating and difficult. In the same way that racehorses need to run, dancers need to dance. Nothing but that is not great, although you can train where you can. Performance creates a self-fulfilling virtuous circle. It maintains your skills and stamina.
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 an immediate one.
“When the invasion started, it was unclear what was going on because Russia had been playing territorial games for some time. This became more apparent when flights from Europe were suddenly canceled and it was safe to cross over the border.
Other dancers have since shared heartbreaking escape stories with Parish. “Even though we were quite safe, it was difficult for my wife and me in Estonia. We weren’t allowed backstage at some theaters just because we were from Russia, even though we left because we didn’t agree.
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 initial decision to travel to Russia 12 years ago. “I had the most incredible adventure of its kind that I could have ever imagined,” he said. “I expected to stay about six months, maybe a year, to gain experience with a different type of teaching and tradition. I wanted to learn. My only wish was to improve as a dancer and then return to London.
Now Parish has said goodbye to a city that had become his home. “I can’t go back in the foreseeable future. Of course, I miss the Russian countryside and culture. There are a million things that I like,” he said.
Selections from The Bayadere, Swan Lake and The Corsair were chosen for the program, as well as paquitaa Russian staple, and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the rain. Parish also choreographed a piece performed on the work of Tchaikovsky children’s album. “It’s a great reunion for us to have that sense of camaraderie and come together to play as a family again,” he said.