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Xander Parish of the Mariinsky Ballet in Swan Lake
Photograph: Xander Parish of the Mariinsky Ballet in Swan Lake

Xander Parish finds his groove at the Mariinsky Ballet

Xander Parish lands on his feet in St. Petersburg as the first British member of the Mariinsky Ballet

By Gia Kourlas

When the Mariinsky Ballet travels to Brooklyn this month, along comes some of the world's brightest ballet stars—Diana Vishneva, Ulyana Lopatkina, Denis Matvienko, to name a few. And then there's Xander Parish, a transplant from the Royal Ballet who, until joining the Mariinsky five years ago, had never performed a solo as a professional dancer. Before the company hits BAM, Parish talks about his dramatic transition to life in Russia and to principal roles, including Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.

What have you been rehearsing today?
Marguerite and Armand, an [Frederick] Ashton ballet. Do you know it?

I do.
It’s a really lovely ballet based on La Dame aux Camélias. I’m rehearsing that madly right now.

You performed in it when you were with the Royal Ballet, right?
I did actually, but I was holding a candelabra and moving around scenery. [Laughs] Not quite the dancing role that I envisioned as a young boy.

Were you eight when you started dancing?
Exactly. It came about because my little sister—she’s 15 months younger than I am, so quite close in age—was in a school ballet show. I sat with my parents in the auditorium and when I saw she was onstage having fun under the spotlights and I was there watching, I was like, Hang on a second—I’m on the wrong end of the theater. I need to be onstage. I demanded to go to ballet class as well.

Did you take to it right away?
You know what? I think I had no idea what ballet was. I couldn’t care less about ballet, to be honest. I was drawn in by the applause, the glamour and being onstage. I was quite a shy kid; I wasn’t an exhibitionist. It’s weird. I really wasn’t into being the center of attention, but somehow the spotlight appealed to me.

What was that early training like?
When I was eight, I can’t even remember ballet class. I think it was more about messing around, playing with my friends. There were three boys in my local ballet school in Hull and there were loads of girls; we had fun. We messed around and were good friends, and that was basically ballet class for me. Then, as it happened, I was an extra with the Scottish Ballet—they came to my city for The Nutcracker. I learned the choreography and being a little kid onstage was such good fun. I was hooked on performing. It wasn’t really ballet. I didn’t really learn what ballet was until I went to ballet school in London when I was 11.

Did you audition in Hull or did you go to London?
What happened was the Royal Ballet School had outreach centers in the U.K., and they held monthly classes in larger cities. The closest to mine was in Leeds, which is about an hour away from Hull. I auditioned for those monthly classes, and they took me on and my sister, too. They keep their eye on you, and when I was 10 I auditioned for the school in London full-time, and got a place there, but actually didn’t want to go. It was an amazing achievement. There are hundreds of kids going for one place, and when I got it I actually turned it down, because I wanted to be a cricketer. [Laughs] Do you know what cricket is?

Most Americans are like, “What’s cricket?” It’s kind of like baseball with more rules. I was mad on cricket. It was my favorite sport, and I was good at it. I have long arms and I was good at throwing and catching and so when I had to make the decision to go to vocational ballet school and give up my cricket or stay at home, I was like, hang on a second, I’m going to stay at home. Why am I going to London? I’m 11 years old. I don’t want to leave home. I stayed and pursued academics and cricket for a little bit longer and then I changed my mind just before I turned 12. Those two friends of mine I was talking about before from my local ballet school also went to the Royal Ballet School. So once they’d gone, ballet became a little bit boring for me back in Hull. I thought, Maybe I made the wrong decision here—I should go with them in London and see what they’re up to. I joined them, two terms late into my training in the school.

Was it hard to live away from home?
Yeah. I was super homesick. When I first left home, I’d never really been away from my parents before. When I went, at 11, to live two or three hundred miles away, it was a big deal for me and I found it very hard. But my mom and dad came and visited me or I went home on weekends, and after a year, my little sister joined me there. She came to the Royal Ballet School as well.

How did you end up joining the Royal?
After seven and a half years, during my final graduation year at the Royal Ballet School we had an exchange program with ABT II; the ABT II students came to London and we, the Royal Ballet School graduates, went to America. I was in New York in 2005, and we danced a whole bunch of stuff, and I got offered a place in ABT II. It would have been awesome. But as soon as I got that offer, the Royal Ballet offered me a job as well and obviously to join the Royal Ballet was a big deal, so I accepted my contract there. One of my best friends, Thomas Forster, took his place at ABT II. We were in the same class. Tom took his place and obviously he’s doing really well [as a member of ABT].

How long were you in the Royal Ballet before you started to get disaffected?
[Laughs] Probably immediately. You leave school and you want to do your best and they’re like, “Okay, you’re gonna hold that spear.” You’re like, What? I just spent eight years training. I want to dance! I knew it would be a little bit slow, but I was quite naive. I thought it would be a year or two and then you start to dance. After three, four years, I was like, This is awful. I didn’t like it at all. I really wanted to dance. I thought, I gave up cricket—I could have been doing cricket.

Right. How did you deal?
I did competitions to keep myself occupied, and I worked with David Howard, who would guest-teach with the Royal Ballet. During my first season, he took me aside and said, “You’ve got great talent, but you’re gangly and tall and sort of weak right now. I want to work with you. Would you be up to doing some coaching?” I was like, “Yeah, for sure!” So he would take me after rehearsals every night when he was in London, and we would work together and then go and get dinner after and he would train me and coach me, and he gave me tons of input. He kept me stirred up. He kept me on the edge trying to improve; being in a big company, you settle toward the bottom. You join the company and you’re a little kid. You’re like, Oh there’s Carlos Acosta, I’ll just go in the corner and hide. You feel completely squashed out; I still feel like that now sometimes. [Laughs] He was really encouraging to me. So that was super helpful. Then Yuri Fateyev came to teach. This guy was just a breath of fresh air. He was like a little missile that exploded; his energy was like a bomb and I was like, Wow, this guy’s great. He gave me a little attention. By then I had been in the company for about three years, and I didn’t really get that much attention from the faculty in the Royal Ballet. One day, I said, “Please, would you give me some one-on-one coaching?” He nearly killed me. [Laughs] Made me jump and jump and jump and jump, and we just clicked. We had that connection. I had no idea who he was. And after six months, I found out that this little guy had become the director of the Mariinsky Ballet. What’s even more amazing was that he remembered me. He sent me a message: “You should come to my company, because I hear you’re not doing very much in London, and I think you have potential. So if you want to work with me, we can work together, and I’ll turn you into a prince.”

Oh my God. Are you serious?
Yeah. I was like, uhh… I was terrified. I thought, The guy’s crazy. I thought he was off his rocker. I didn’t take the offer at first. That was in 2008. I let it go on for another year, I thought, I’ll keep trying at the Royal Ballet. Eventually I’ll break through, eventually something will happen, and I’ll get a chance, but nothing really happened. In the summer of 2009, the Mariinsky came on tour to London to the opera house and he got in touch with me again and said, “We’re coming to London. We’re going to be in your theater. Come and see me. Come and take class, watch the shows.” I thought, That’s harmless enough. [Laughs] That was two weeks, and after two weeks, he said, “What do you think?” I said, “Yeah! Good company. Nice work, congratulations.” He said, “Okay, good. Come to Russia.” Three words. “Come to Russia.” I thought he was joking, but he was deadly serious. I was like, “I don’t speak Russian. I am at the bottom of the corps de ballet in the Royal Ballet—why on earth would you want me to come to Russia? You have the best dancers in Russia. The Russians beat the rest of the world with dance; it’s not the other way around. Why should I come to Russia?” He was like, “No, no, you work hard, you have a good attitude. You have potential! You have long legs, nice feet. You’re very raw right now, but I can train you and turn you into something.” That completely terrified me. I said, “That’s really nice, but I think you’re completely crazy! I’ve never done a solo since I left school.” I’d been in the company almost four years by then.

You’re kidding—you’d never danced a solo?
No, not even a solo, absolutely nothing. I was like, “I’m 23 years old and I’ve not done anything,” and I said no. He was really upset. He said, “Here’s my email. Get in touch if you change your mind.” That summer, I really thought about it, and I was like, Oh man, this is a big opportunity. So a lot of thinking and praying ensued and then I went and saw my director, Monica Mason, on the first day of the new season and said, “So the Mariinsky Ballet offered me a job. What do you think about it? Do you want me to go?” My suggestion was that I go as an exchange or a sabbatical. Maybe I could go for a year and come back or something, I could learn something there. My director was really nice, and she said, “We like you here, you’re a lovely guy and we like your dancing, but I can’t offer you anything particular here in Royal Ballet.” I said, “That’s all very well, but I’m not dancing anything, and maybe you like me and that’s very nice, thank you, but I’m not fulfilling my potential. I’m not actually onstage dancing—I’m holding spears and stuff.” She said, “Well, that’s true.” She didn’t offer me anything to stay. I said, “I’ll go in that case. I’ll try. See what happens. What can I do? If I fail, I’ll fail. If I succeed—I’ll try. I’ll do my best.” So I sent Yuri an email. I said, “I’ll come” and the following January in 2010, I got on a plane, and I came to Russia. It was crazy.

Was the country covered in snow?
That year was a particularly bad winter as it turned out. I didn’t know it at the time. I got off the plane in Russia. It was 3pm, and it was pitch-black outside and the snow was a meter high. I was like, What have I done? Where am I? It’s not very far from London. Three hours on a plane. By American standards, that’s nothing. You guys have a huge country. But Russia is a completely different place. England is quite mild in comparison to anything I’d experienced in Russia. It was, like, minus 26 degrees Celsius and I was like, Oh my goodness, what is this place? I literally left my suitcase on the floor of my room ready to go for a month. [Laughs] I was not convinced I was going to stay.

When did it start to turn around?
After about a year I started to make some good friends and felt like I’d been accepted. It took me a very long time to feel like I was accepted by the company. Nobody was unpleasant or mean; everyone was perfectly professional, but they were a little bit cold, and I felt like the outsider. I spoke no Russian. I didn’t have a clue about what was going on around me. I’d be shouted at in rehearsals. It was such a nightmare. [Laughs] Imagine having Chinese yelled at you—you’re like left, right, up, down? It was a huge learning curve. It was a massive adventure. They gave me an apartment across the road from the theater, which was very convenient. One of the guys took me out to a big department store so I could buy a microwave and plates and stuff and to furnish my flat and then there was an interpreter called Dmitri. He’s my uncle here; he speaks English perfectly. He met me off the plane, and he’s a jolly fellow—rosy cheeks, big smile. He took care of me a lot in my first year. And now I’ve made friends in the theater. I love it here and now I can speak some Russian and communicate with my friends. I’m not fluent by a long shot, but I can get by.

What did you dance right away?
That was an amazing thing. I landed and Dmitri took me from the airport, which is now a new airport, thank God. The old one—imagine your worst image of a Soviet-style ugly airport. It was awful. That was my first welcome to Russia. Anyway, he took me from the airport to the building where I was going to be living. We dumped my suitcases in my room and went to the theater to find Yuri, the director. He was in the wings for a show of Nutcracker. I’d seen pictures of the Mariinsky on TV and in books, and when we were in the car driving there, around the corner was this mint-green jewel among the ice and snow and orange street lamps. It was magical, absolutely amazing and to go inside is like going back in time. It’s really old and there are broken chandeliers lying around, half a piano here and some costumes there and it’s amazing. Worn-down stone steps where you can imagine Nureyev and Baryshnikov walked along. So I was completely taken by it; it was love at first sight: a beautiful, beautiful theater. I loved it there. The atmosphere is incredible there and so magical. I met Yuri in the wings.

What was that like?
He said, “Welcome to Russia. How are you? Are you okay?” I said, “Yeah!” He goes, “You’re going to dance in Chopiniana in about four weeks time.” I was like, “Okay. Which guy am I going to be in Chopiniana?” He’s like, “Uhh, there is only one guy.” In England, we call Chopiniana, Les Sylphides. That was my first scheduled part, which was obviously a principal role. [Laughs] I go from absolutely nothing to, four weeks later, doing my first principal part. In Russia. Pretty crazy. 

Did it go well?
It did actually! It wasn’t bad. I can’t pretend it was incredible. It was my first-ever solo and partnering and lifting a girl around and having to dance onstage by myself. I enjoyed it. The magic of it carried me along and what’s really amazing is that in the auditorium here, all the gold out front reflects the light back at you. It’s a really thick atmosphere—it’s dusty, but the gold shines back at you, so it’s really beautiful.
In New York, you’re dancing Swan Lake.
I am, with Oxana [Skorik]. We did it once together maybe a month ago. She’s amazing. She has the most incredible facility. Beautiful legs. Incredible.

What is it like performing with her?
You know, it can be a little…how to describe it? Some of these Russian ballerinas are so focused and exacting; it can be a little stressful sometimes to get it exactly right. [Laughs] You have to make the girl look good and make her feel comfortable and make her have a good show. Oxana is amazing, and it’s easy to make her look good.

What do you think of dancing Swan Lake? Is Prince Siegfried a role you enjoy?
Oh sure. For me, it’s a dream to do it, because when I was back in London, Swan Lake was something—I was the guy who was the prince. I was always known for my lines; I couldn’t do much virtuoso stuff, but I was one of the people who did the prince solo. My friends would do the Corsaire solo and whip out amazing pirouettes and incredible jumps, but I would just look nice and walk off the stage. [Laughs] It’s good to be a prince. I love to act parts out and give them some meaning, and I think Siegfried is an interesting character. He has no father; his mother is the queen, but there’s no king so he has a lot on his shoulders. I got a critique in Russia that I played it a bit too sad and melancholy and thoughtful. But if you were really a prince and you didn’t have a dad and you were being forced to look for a wife to get married quickly and probably be king pretty soon, that quite a lot of pressure in my opinion, so I think he has some things to work out. I try to give him some flavor, at least some sort of character. Otherwise I think it gets boring; it needs something to go with it. Ballet isn’t ballet without some flavor of acting and some meaning. I try to convey that in how I dance it and to show how I fall in love with Odette and how Odile seduces me in the black act and the remorse in the final act. It’s a good part to play with. There’s lots there to work with.

Who is your coach?
I work a lot with Yuri. Obviously, he’s too busy to do everyday coaching so I work with Igor Petrov. He’s a great guy, and he’s got a loud, booming voice. He calls me Sasha.

Is the coaching vastly different from what you experienced at the Royal?
Well, interestingly, when I was in the school, one of my teachers was Anatoli Grigoriev, and he was from the Kirov Ballet so I kind of got some essence of Russian style. It was already a little bit inside of me, so that was very helpful actually, and it seems to suit me better than back in the Royal Ballet. I love the Ashton works, and I love [Kenneth] MacMillan. But very often the solo parts are for the smaller dancers; there is very fast footwork, and there are dancers who can do things faster than I can. I’m not so quick. I’m a little bit long. Here at the Mariinsky, it’s a bit slower. It suits my limbs better. It’s more comfortable for me than the fast stuff, so I feel like I fit in better. And in the Royal Ballet, they have no coaches, but in the Mariinsky to have my own coach is brilliant. Igor probably has about six guys he takes care of; he looks after us in rehearsals and stands in the wings for our shows.

I know this is a general question, but how has your dancing changed?
I think the biggest difference now is that I’ve had to learn how to dance onstage. When I joined the company, I was only dancing in the studio. It might seem like the same kind of thing, but when you have lights, costume, makeup, live orchestra and an audience, it’s like playing two different sports. So I’ve had to cope with the pressure, cope with the nerves, cope with the costumes, which are difficult. When I did Swan Lake for the first time last year, at my debut, I hadn’t realized just how hard parting a tutu really is. Like in Swan Lake when you’re doing the pirouettes with the girl, there was a tutu getting in the way, and it’s like, where do my hands go? There’s netting. The girls have practice tutus in the studio, but it’s not the same as wearing the tutu with the bodice. It’s different; it doesn’t feel the same, and sometimes the bodices are slippery and when you’re dancing and dancing onstage with hot lights and sweating a lot, your hands get slippery. Little things: learning how to cope with actually doing a show and stamina too. Technique. You can train all you like, but getting onstage and making it all work with everything else on top of it is different. For me, that’s changed.

What ballets have been fulfilling for you to dance?
Just three weeks ago, I had my debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina. It’s really a cool piece. The story is so emotional and involving, and it really is so dark somehow. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s so physically demanding. I think there are something like seven duets, five solos, and it just never stops. Two minutes in the wings to change your costume, next pas de deux. I was absolutely exhausted by the end. It was a real marathon, but at the same time, it was like this emotional high. I think it’s my highlight of dancing at the Mariinsky. It’s also Tolstoy, this mega-Russian famous novel and then there’s me, this English guy dancing this super Russian piece in Russia. I felt like a spy, you know? [Laughs] I was like, nobody knows but this actually this Vronsky is a British boy. It was great. I was undercover completely.

Is that how you feel often? Undercover? Or like you don’t belong?
Now I feel like I belong. I’m very much accepted by my colleagues, by my teachers. They like me. Of course, I do get the occasional bitter resistance and the odd look or the snide comment or something, but I don’t really care. I’m quite naive and it kind of helps. I let it go over my head. There are two American conductors working here called Gavriel Heine and Christian Knapp. We often hang out and speak English together, which is nice. Last week, there was an international cultural forum hosted by the minister of culture for Russia and we did a performance of Apollo; Christian was conducting and I was dancing, and we were like, we are completely like spies here! All of the governors down there watching this cultural show of the best Russian ballet. He was American; Apollo’s British. It was hilarious.

Do you have aspirations to join a company like ABT?
Join it full-time? If the chance arises, but I feel like I’ve only just started to take off at the Mariinsky, and I need to capitalize on that and make the most of it. I invested five years now in Russia and my first three, three-and-a-half years here, were really learning the style, figuring out how to speak the language, learning how to cope, learning how to perform, trying to adapt and to look like a Russian, which isn’t easy. And trying to rise to that standard, which is so high. I don’t pretend I’ve attained it yet. I’m certainly trying. I want to make the most of it now. I’ve got these big roles under my belt. I want to do them more. I want to learn how to do them well. I’ve done them a handful of times whereas the guys who are 10 years older than I am here have done Swan Lake hundreds of times. They can do it without thinking about it; I am still thinking about what comes next and how to do it well and how to have it be a good show, where they can just do it on autopilot. I think there’s a lot to be developed there. I’m on a steep learning curve still. I don’t think that because I’ve done Swan Lake, I can do Swan Lake. I find I’ve scratched the surface. I hope in five years time it’ll be a better show than it is now. 

How can you look like a Russian? How do you learn that?
They have a confidence. They have a certain stage presence. The confidence of their training and how they’re taught; the confidence that they can do it. It’s something I think that’s hard to put your finger on, but once you’ve been here a few years you start to absorb it. It’s in the atmosphere somehow. It does rub off. To give a clear, accurate picture of what that is—to make something Russian, what is that Russianness? It can be anything from walking down the street in the snow with the beautiful palaces and the gold auditorium and the ice on the streets and the canteen and the no unions—working in the middle of the night and getting up early and doing hundreds of shows without free dates. It all adds up. It’s the environment for it. It molds you. And somehow it creates this Russianness that comes out in the artistry. It’s interesting. I don’t see it anywhere else. I think looking back at my time in England, you’re so babied and cushioned that you don’t even realize you’re wrapped in cotton wool. You have Sundays free. Wow! Now I look back and think, wow, I had Sundays free. Amazing. A free day every week. Now we’re lucky to get a free day in a month, if it’s not two months. I get through every day without stopping, and there’s no union here to say, “You’ve worked two hours, now time for a 10-minute break. What’s a union? [Laughs]

You work quite late too, right?
Yeah sure. For instance tonight I went to talk to my director. Swan Lake was going on tonight. I went to the wings, and there was the second director and she said, “Sasha, you’re here—you’re now the cover for the show because no one else is here.” I was like, “Uhhh, okay, okay. Fine.” I popped into the wings. Watched the show. She said, “Oh by the way, the principal guy tonight—his heel is in pain, so he might not do the third act. If he’s off, you dance.” That’s fine, whatever.

Did you do the third act?

No. He hobbled through it. He said his foot was hurting him, but he’d go through it. I guess he wanted the money, because you get paid per show here. If you don’t do the show, you don’t get paid. You get a basic salary but your wages come from your shows.

So you’re less likely to call in sick?
No one calls in sick! If it happens, they average out your monthly salary. It possibly changes each month because sometimes the shows are completely different every month. So if you’re injured or you get sick, they’ll put you on an average of what you would have made for that month; they’re not completely barbaric. [Laughs] They’re okay.

Does Yuri talk to you about how he wants you to develop?
Yeah, sure. Yuri is very specific. That’s why he’s a great director. He’s personable, and he understands ballet technique. He’s not just a manager. Some directors are really just administrators. He does that too; his forte is he is an amazing coach. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had and not just with enthusiasm, but also his understanding of detail, the way he can teach technique and watch—his eyes. I think he has some sort of laser vision because he can see through any cheesy bit. He can see everything, exactly why you’re doing it and what you’ve got to work on. After my shows—he watches every one—he gives me a list of corrections. “Work on this. Your feet are nice; in two weeks get them stronger on this jump here, make sure you land, don’t hop. Control your knee better here and pull up this. Get in your hips in this step here.” He gives you everything. He directs the artist, not just the company. Individually he gives real insight on your own development and that’s what keeps you on the edge, it keeps you going. It’s not just, “Well done, here’s your money.” No. He wants you to do your best and he’s keen to keep the standard very high. He’s taken a huge risk on me—to take this unknown bottom of the corps de ballet guy from London, and stick him in the Mariinsky? It was kind of crazy. I want to do him proud. I’m pleased that his input is having good effect and now he feels he can send me to America. I’ve kind of earned it in one respect, but I want to do him proud and I want to show that his decision to bring me to Russia hasn’t diminished the quality of the Mariinsky. That’s quite a weight on my shoulders.

Are you still the only British dancer in the Mariinsky?
I’m the only one. Just me. All by myself. [Laughs]

You’ve been in Russia for five years. Is it one of those experiences that has flown by?
It’s gone quickly. It was slow at the time and when you’re there at the bottom—Royal Ballet’s a big company, but I joined a company three times the size of the Royal Ballet. Thank God I had a director on my side, but I still had to prove myself. I felt often that I required more proving than others because I’m not Russian, I’m not from the school. Coaches would come to me after my shows, “Really? You work here? You’re from our company?” Sarcastically. If they didn’t like what I did, they would be sarcastic about it. It was kind of tough. Not only for me, I think for Yuri. It was on his shoulders. He brought me here; it was his decision and he had to prove that he had made a right choice. He had to really make sure I was ready before giving me my first big break, which was Giselle about a year and three quarters ago. That was my first full-length ballet. I’d done Chopiniana and some pas de trois—that was my first two, three years. It took me three years to try out a principal part; that was my turning point. That went great, except my ballerina broke her knee the day before the show. I was practicing with a tiny little girl, and she was replaced with somebody else who was fabulous. She was very experienced and helpful and kind to me. It went very well.
What made you finally unpack your suitcase?
I guess I had to hang my clothes up eventually. [Laughs] After three months, I returned to London because my visa had run out. Once I’d done my first three months, those were the hardest three months because it was dark and cold, it was winter, it was so foreign and I was absorbing like a sponge everything I possibly could every day, from where I could buy food to where the canteen was. I didn’t realize there were three canteens in the theater. I had no idea. After like a year, I found another canteen, which was much better than the other one I had been using. I was like, awesome! After those first three months, I figured I can stick it out another three months until the summer holiday. I did that and I went back after the summer break in September for the new season and by then I’d been in the company for six months; it was still hard to leave London and I knew winter was approaching. By then I knew about the icicles and the freezing conditions; I knew what to expect, but it was still really hard. For my first tour, which was in December of 2010, we were sent to Germany. I felt like I bonded with the guys and was accepted really. Once they saw that I was there for the long haul and not just 10 minutes of glory, they accepted me to pull my weight. They respected me as well. I find Russians very respectful people, and that’s what’s really marked my experience here. They’re very honorable. If you honor them and pull your weight and show that you’re there, part of the team, they’ll respect you for it.

Also, I think with Russians once you do break through, they’re friends for life.
Exactly. I said that exact same thing: The friends I’ve made here are really my friends. Those guys are the loyalist, kindest, loveliest guys that I’ve ever met. I know they would do anything for me. Anything. I love them to bits. It’s a great privilege to be here as a foreigner. It changed my opinions about Russia so much. I didn’t have a clue. My biggest source of information about Russia before I came here was James Bond.

Mariinsky Ballet performs at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Jan 15–25.


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