The sight of Viktoria Tereshkina’s name at the top of any Mariinsky bill is usually more than enough to have an audience aflutter, still more so when this supremely gifted ballerina is taking on a role as substantial as Odette-Odile. There was, however, a further, yet bigger reason why Thursday’s performance of Swan Lake was the most keenly anticipated evening of the company’s three-week London residency: namely, that her prince for the evening would be one Xander Parish.
The 31-year-old’s story is fast breaking out of ballet circles and into the general consciousness, and as well it might. For it is not every day that those who tell fairytales for a living end up, in the process, becoming the hero of their own, real-life one.
Born in Hull, raised (and still) a devout Christian, and trained at the Royal Ballet School, Parish then spent five years in the corps of the Royal Ballet – where his younger sister, Demelza, is a first artist – hoping to be spotted. Indeed he was: but not by his own company. Yuri Fateyev – then visiting as a teacher, and soon to become director of the Mariinsky Ballet – saw the potential in this 6ft 1in, handsome, but at the time still (by Parish’s own admission) “Bambi-like” fellow, and offered him a job with the St Petersburg troupe. In 2010, when Parish finally accepted, he became the first Briton ever to join the oldest and most celebrated ballet company in the world.
In fact, Parish has already visited Covent Garden twice with the Russians, in 2011 and 2014. But, now partnering the company’s top ballerinas, he now returns not as a mere member of the Mariinsky, but as one of its brightest stars. Back in January, his guest turn as Albrecht in English National Ballet’s Giselle showed a dancer who, over the past seven years, had risen to considerable artistic heights. And when I caught him in May in St Petersburg, in the Mariinsky’s version of the same ballet, he was every bit as good. Would he now recreate the same magic in the company’s time-honoured production of the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov classic Swan Lake, on the stage that arguably ought still to be his home?
One should say straight out that although not a flawless homecoming, it was one of which he should be proud. That earlier coltishness now banished by years of hard work, he cuts the most princely and linear figure, with a dash of the great former ENB principal Thomas Edur about him in this respect. Making full use of his long, lyrical frame from the outset, he was incapable of making the slightest movement without radiating gallantry and complete authority, while at the same time lending his prince a sense of wide-eyed, boyish vulnerability. He was composure itself in his brief solos in Act I Scene 1, and in the following scene he cut grandly and easily through the air, while imbuing Siegfried with a subtle but compelling aura of melancholy and exasperation.
He was also strong in the lakeside Scene 2, conveying his burgeoning love for Odette not through facial mugging or exaggerated phrasing, but above all through the intimacy and attentiveness of his partnering. Only in Act II, in the famous and particularly demanding Black Swan pas de deux, did nerves seem to creep in, with a couple of fudged finishes after more elaborate jumps. And he would ideally have brought more unbridled passion to Act III, more fury to his exchanges with the villainous Von Rothbart.
Tereshkina, however, did not make it easy for him. Odette-Odiles always have to negotiate a particularly tricky path (in both, contrasting parts) between the Scylla of melodrama and the Charybdis of one-note monotony, and, sad to say – especially after the joy of her rocket-fuelled Kitri in Monday’s Don Quixote – she tended towards the latter. Her Odile was technically accomplished but lacked venom, more a party-girl out on the tiles than a femme fatale calculatedly out to devastate her prey. As for her Odette, again, she demonstrated technique and musicality in spades, her long arms mesmerisingly seeming to float on the midnight mist. But there was an icy, imperious detachment to her that – both here and in the climactic Act III – softened too seldom, and which Parish’s Siegfried struggled to break through. Her love for him barely registered, making it very tricky to get swept up in the story.
In fairness, however, the production doesn’t always help. The Jester (Yaroslav Baibordin, not quite the aerial wonder he needed to be, or that the crowd seemed to think he was) feels near-ubiquitous and hideously distracting, like a house mouse that pops up uninvited in every room. The ending timidly allows Odette and Siegfried to live, and, although the sets and courtly costumes are beautiful, the tutus are gusset-flauntingly flat – more under-layering would be good. Meanwhile, the company’s habit of taking a miniature curtain-call after every set-piece is a constant assault on the all-important fourth wall, and therefore corrosive to the drama – should Tchaikovsky’s wonder of a score really have to be put on ice so often?
However, there were plenty of other strong performances. Andrei Yermakov was like a flying dagger as Von Rothbart, Nadezhda Batoeva and Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova put on a punctilious and very pretty display of classical refinement in the Act I pas de trois (if rather trouncing their beau, Flipp Stepin, in the process), and the Mariinsky corps justified its golden reputation.
The Act II international episodes, too, were superb. In the Neapolitan Dance, what I managed to see of Tamara Gimadieva (that is, past the poor fellow in front of me, squirming from left to right as if perched on an ant-hill) confirmed her as a name to watch, and the entire company dived into all this “character” work with remarkable gusto and purpose – exactly how it should be done.
Backstage after the show, Parish was promoted from first soloist to principal, and a question now hangs, zeppelin-like, in the air: will the Royal Ballet ask this hugely talented Yorkshireman back to Covent Garden? To quote Wilde verbatim, if losing a future Mariinsky principal may be regarded as a misfortune, failing even to try to get him back (even as, say, a regular guest artist) looks like carelessness. Fingers crossed.
Swan Lake is in rep until August 7; the Mariinsky season runs until August 12. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk