Mad about the boy

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

Tall, handsome boys with long legs and beautifully arched feet do not grow on trees (if only). Every ballet director knows this and yet tall, handsome Xander Parish spent five years blushing unseen in the Covent Garden chorus. The London critics soon spotted him — a rogue tulip in the ensemble — but it was only when the Mariinsky’s Yuri Fateyev was guest coaching the Royal Ballet in 2010 that his potential was realised. Within months he had joined the Mariinsky in St Petersburg — the first British dancer ever to do so. After four years he was made soloist, then first soloist and, last Thursday, on the Royal Opera House stage, he was promoted to principal after a performance of Swan Lake.

Parish had danced Siegfried before, during the company’s 2014 visit, but a controlled explosion of media interest — front page of the Times, TV interview, a slot on the Today programme — meant that the packed house was fizzing with a mix of goodwill, anxiety and sheer patriotic zeal even before Boris Gruzin struck up the overture.

The 31-year-old was clearly nervous, and matters weren’t helped by the last-minute substitution of Viktoria Tereshkina for his scheduled partner, Oxana Skorik. In the event, his pairwork was exemplary. He managed the high, clean-and-jerk lifts with only the mildest of pliés, and seven years of hard slog and rigorous St Petersburg training mean that he can echo his ballerina’s line with automatic grace. His Siegfried doesn’t jump especially high or turn particularly fast (the Russians supply a court jester for that) but those amazing legs guarantee an elegantly polished arabesque and a javelin-like jeté.

The Mariinsky has undoubtedly supercharged the young Yorkshireman’s classical technique, but Swan Lake’s unhappy prince needs to be much more than a noble porteur and Parish’s acting remains oddly understated, as if the dancer’s natural modesty and good manners were inhibiting his stage persona.

The first-act birthday party was missing its usual veil of Weltschmerz — the prince seemed to be having quite a good time, if anything — and Parish’s gestures lacked weight and expansiveness. In the final act he ripped off Rothbart’s wing like a tailor at the end of a fitting. His low-key playing wasn’t helped by Tereshkina’s meticulous but slightly chilly Odette/Odile. Friday night’s Swan Queen was Ekaterina Kondaurova, a former pupil of the greatOlga Chenchikova. Kondaurova has the knack of delaying completion on each pose, the foot or the wrist unfurling at the last possible moment. Such rubato phrasingcan easily tip over into mannerism but Kondaurova uses it to thrilling effect, lending vulnerability to the sorrowing Odetteand a teasing sensuality to her wicked doppelgänger.

Stars are always a bonus but the Mariinsky Swan Lake could survive without them thanks to the transcendent corps de ballet. The national dances of the ballroom act, so often a matter of clicked heels and counts under the breath, sizzled with life. Meanwhile, down by the lake, 32 swan maidens worked their spell, their shared schooling ensuring that every tendu, every tutu was angled to paper-doll perfection.

The company’s three-week season, presented by Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, kicked off with three performances of Don Quixote, one of classical ballet’s guilty pleasures. This sun-kissed romantic comedy makes full use of all the Mariinsky’s strengths, from the lordly pantomime of character players like Soslan Kulaev (as the doleful Don) to the filigree footwork of Ekaterina Chebykina’s street dancer. Nadezhda Batoeva flew through the heroine’s killer variations with exactly the air of entitlement you would expect from the prettiest girl in town.

The production is based on Alexander Gorsky’s 1900 reworking of Marius Petipa’s 1869 original and faithfully recreates the exquisite sets and costumes of Alexander Golovin and Konstantin Korovin. A few choreographic add-ons strike a false note (the oriental floor show on a strip of stair carpet is best watched through the fingers) but the ballet is a satisfying mix of Spanish accents and lyrical classicism. When Alexander Sergeyev and his band of matadors storm downstage, capes flying, the audience laughs out loud. When the lights go up on the dryads scene — two dozen pastel tutus with but a single thought — the whole house literally coos with pleasure.

Some of Tuesday night’s ensembles were a mite prim but this was chiefly the fault of Boris Gruzin’s lumpen tempi. Ludwig Minkus gets a bad press but his music is unfailingly dansante and can be exhilarating if taken at speed.

The late Viktor Fedotov (never one to hang about) always looked forward to a little light relief after a long run of conducting Romeos: ‘I need Don Quichotte! I need champagne!’

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