From Russia with love: Xander’s extraordinary rise

Here, Xander tells us how he went from being a sports-mad eight year old taking classes at Hull’s Skelton Hooper School to becoming the first British dancer at St Petersburg’s prestigious Mariinsky Ballet.

I’m interested in the legacy left after 2017 and what that means for the city. Xander Parish

How did you first get into dance?

My parents tell me that I was about eight years old, watching my sister Demelza in a dance performance. Apparently I just turned to my mum and asked why I wasn’t doing it too, and so I started classes with my sister at the Skelton Hooper School of Dance in Hull soon afterwards.

The week I joined, auditions were being held for The Pickwick Papers at Hull New Theatre. I was given the role of a street urchin and absolutely loved being on stage. It wasn’t ballet so much as performing that really caught my imagination.

We heard you started off wanting to get into sport, specifically cricket.
Did you ever encounter prejudice as a Hull boy learning ballet?

For me, ballet was always just another sport. I was a sporty child and played everything, but it was cricket that I really loved. I would study videos to improve my bowling, and aspired to play for Yorkshire. I don’t have a single memory of feeling self-conscious or worried about what others would think of me doing ballet.

There were two other boys who went to ballet class with me we auditioned for The Royal Ballet School and were all accepted. They both took their places in London but I chose not to – I didn’t like the idea of boarding in London nor the idea of giving up cricket. However, with my two friends gone, I felt that I was missing out. My parents called the school and I was allowed to join mid-year. One of the boys had already dropped out but the other was Joseph Caley, now a Principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Is there one moment that stands out as being the ‘big break’ of your career?

The moment that changed my life and has defined my career to date came when I flew to Russia and joined the Mariinsky Ballet just over seven years ago. This was so radical and unusual that I could hardly believe it – Russians often come to the West to work in all the major theatres but Westerners very rarely go the other way.

After my training finished at The Royal Ballet School, I was accepted into The Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet, working at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The following four years involved lots  of hard work but resulted mainly in very basic roles. I was hungry to improve – I certainly wasn’t ready for big roles at that point but I needed nurturing and coaching.

One day a guest teacher from Russia came to teach our classes for two weeks. I loved this man’s energy and attention to detail; one day I asked him if he would mind working with me a bit longer after class and we ended up working for an extra half an hour. He returned to Russia and as far as I knew, that was that. Approximately six months later, that same man became director of ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre and invited me to join the company.

Hull has made an extraordinary contribution to dance and ballet,
with a number of prolific names in dance hailing from the city
– what do you think are the common threads between your success
and that of other home-grown stars?

I put a lot of it down to Yorkshire grit and determination. Where you grow up shapes you – plus Hull is blessed with good ballet schools, especially Skelton Hooper where my sister and I went. The school prepared us and many other current Hull born dance professionals for vocational training, so I would certainly recommend a similar route for any young dancers in the city today.

What has been your career highlight to date?

I’ve been blessed with lots of amazing opportunities so it’s impossible to pick one highlight. As an example, I recently had the privilege of returning to London to perform the role of Albrecht in Giselle as a guest artist with English National Ballet, in front of my family and friends – it was such a great atmosphere.

What are the biggest differences and similarities between living in Russia and in the UK?
How often do you get the chance to come back to Hull?

Most obviously, the biggest difference is the language. It took me a long time to get to grips with Russian – I arrived barely speaking a word of it, which made rehearsals very difficult as you can imagine. Unfortunately, I don’t get home to Hull that often, it’s usually once or twice a year. My most recent trip home was to receive an honorary degree from the University of Hull in January, which was fantastic.

Opening the New, the forthcoming Royal Ballet show at Hull New Theatre,
will mark the reopening of the venue after major refurbishment.
Do you have memories of the theatre from childhood?

Hull New Theatre is a very important place for me, as it’s where I took my first steps on stage. Not long after performing in The Pickwick Papers, Scottish Ballet came to town with The Nutcracker and I was given a role. I still remember being onstage dancing, dressed as some sort of sweet! My mum and dad often took my sister and I to see musicals and ballets at the New Theatre too; I particularly remember watching Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is still one of my favourite musicals.

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to experiencing next time you visit Hull?

When I was back in January I was impressed by Blade (part of the Look Up series of installations) and with all the improvements made to the city, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the New Theatre’s renovation. I’m interested in the legacy left after 2017 and what that means for the city – and I hope there’ll be many ballet and dance performances in Hull that I can be involved in!