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Vsevolod Maevsky and cast in class. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Reunited in Dance

Xander Parish leads a troupe of former Bolshoi, Mariinsky, and Mikhalovsky dancers in a gala performance in the U.S.

In 2019, Xander Parish, then principal dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet—the first and only British dancer in the troupe’s history—was awarded an OBE for services to dance and to UK/Russia cultural relations. Fast forward to November 2022 and the world has, to say the least, radically changed. While a global pandemic still factors into daily life, in February of this year, Russia did the unspeakable by invading Ukraine.

With some 14 million Ukrainians having been displaced, and casualties and deaths numbering north of 16,000, Parish has gathered a group of 18 dancers from troupes that include the Mariinsky Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and Stanislavsky Theatre, to perform at Segerstrom Center for the Arts on November 12. Under the banner, “Reunited in Dance,” the concert that has been made possible, in part, by Elizabeth Segerstrom and will be simulcast for free that evening on the Center’s plaza, will have performers once again taking to the stage to do what they do best: touch the human soul by creating magnificent art.

Explained Parish by Zoom from Oslo, where he became a principal with Norwegian National Ballet in August, having fled from Russia with his Siberian-born wife, dancer Anastasia Demidova, days after the invasion began and finally landing in London: “It felt like time stood still for several months and being without work, especially at the Mariinsky, where we work like slaves often seven days a week from morning to night, it was like hitting a brick wall.

“It was a hard time,” added Parish, “and if we could have started working on [this project] earlier we would have. But it worked out in the end. And at the same time to be working with our producer Chris Minev [formerly an international tour producer for the Mariinsky], and all of my colleagues and friends—it was an amazing silver lining. Or more like a diamond lining. It’s such a blessing to have such an exciting project to work on. It’s given me a real purpose to try to make the most of this situation.”

Xander Parish in “Ballet 101” by Eric Gauthier. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

In addition to dancing at Segerstrom in Eric Gauthier’s “Ballet 101,” and performing the “White Swan Adagio,” with Christine Schevchenko, a Ukrainian currently with American Ballet Theatre, Parish is presenting the world premiere of his piece, “The Ballet Class.” Set to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album—24 short piano pieces—the work features a dozen dancers and will be accompanied by pianist Behzod Abduraimov. (The other works on the program, including Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” will be heard on tape.)

“I wasn’t intending to create a piece,” noted Parish, 36, “but as it turned out there was a Russian pianist who loved the idea of our group. He told Chris about this and Chris asked me if he could join our group and play for us. I said, “Of course he can.” He desperately wanted to play Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album and [Abduraimov] said, “You guys just dance to it.”

“But it’s not quite as simple as that,” acknowledged Parish. “It’s not like you’re going to improvise with 20 people onstage.”

However, as Parish listened to the music, he realized he could create a classroom type atmosphere and also inject comedy into the number. “I wanted to weave some humor and some stories inside the structure of the piece, like Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.” If he made a class, I can create something nice that looks beautiful and fits the dancers and shows off their skills. I did my best so that the audience can get an impression of a baby class from any company.”

One of the dancers in Parish’s work is his good chum, the award-winning dancer, choreographer, and director Ilya Jivoy. A native of St. Petersburg who was formerly with the Mariinsky and is currently based in Sarajevo with his wife, the pair left Russia six days after the war began. And while he recently choreographed a triumphant “Carmina Burana” for the State Ballet of Georgia, the Segerstrom program also resonates with him, both personally and professionally.

Articulating his feelings on a Zoom call from Sarajevo, Jivoy, who was born in 1989, sounded resilient. “The [project] is really, really important in the current situation, because many talented dancers left Russian [companies]—and are from many countries—Adrian [Blake Mitchell] is from the U.S., Jacopo [Tissi] is Italian, Xander is British. So, it’s good, because now we need to keep moving, to keep dreaming, to keep doing what we love to do.

“For me,” added Jivoy, “dancing and choreographing is my life, my mission, and I can’t live without that, if you know what I mean. To continue the creative part for me is the most important thing. This event in California, it’s a huge step forward for all of this.”

Ilya Jivoy in “BA//CH Solo,” choreographed by Jivoy. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

To that end, Jivoy will perform the North American premiere of a short solo excerpted from his 50-minute work, “BA//CH,” a dance first seen in June at Switzerland’s Origen Festival. The complete work is set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and recomposed by Peter Gregson and Vikingur Ólafsson, with Jivoy’s solo promising to be a showstopper among the evening’s many balletic baubles.

Educated at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and having made numerous dances while at the Mariinsky, where he was a member for nearly 15 years, Jivoy had his name removed from his works at the famed company’s theater. In effect, he was being cancelled because of politics.

At first, Jivoy said he was angry about this. “How dare they do this with my name,” he said passionately, “but then I could read a few articles, including an interview with the famous writer Boris Akunin. His name was also just erased from theaters, from bookstores, his books are not on sale. He was like, “Okay, my name is not there, but my performances are there. My books are still there and it’s much more important than having a name of one person.”

Jivoy realized, as well, that his productions were also still being mounted. “It’s much more important for the audience to keep watching it, keep taking something from it, but of course, it’s sad.”

It’s equally sad that Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky was also cancelled. The former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004-2009 and current artist-in-residence at ABT, Ratmansky had his name removed from his works at both the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters. 

“I’m on a list with Ratmansky,” Jivoy said stoically, “and I’m okay with that, to be honest, but I wrote an official email to the [Mariinsky] board and asked them to provide me an official statement why they did it, an official reason of cancellation. They haven’t answered me.”

But Jivoy’s work, both dancing and choreographing—he premieres a new work with Cleveland Ballet in April, 2023—is helping him get through this extremely trying time. “It’s kind of a light for me; it fills my life, because I can express myself through my choreography. I can speak with people through my choreography.

“It’s so universal, because, okay, I can speak English, I can speak Russian, but body language, it has no borders. It has no age. It’s the only bridge in the current situation—between cultures, between countries, between people.

“And people are still the same inside. They know the truth. If you can explain your message for them correctly, you can do this with your body and with the bodies of the dancers you’re working with, and the audience can feel it, no matter how old they are or where they’re from.”

The cast of “Reunited in Dance” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Svetlana Bednenko, who was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1991 and currently lives in Dusseldorf, where she dances with Ballett am Rhein, had been a member of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2013 until 2022. Speaking through a translator by Zoom from Germany, she recalled leaving Russia on March 2. “I left really fast and came to Berlin, because my family lives in Berlin. Of course, for me it was a hard decision to leave, because before Mikhailovsky I worked in Eifman Ballet and worked with huge choreographers and ballet masters; it was my home.

“I had a plan,” continued Bednenko, who took top honors at the Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition. “I created my course and didn’t think about leaving at all. I thought I could just be there and travel, but it was hard, because I had a feeling that I want[ed] to be very close at that moment to my family. My grandmother still lives in a small village in Ukraine. I called her every day, but she doesn’t want to leave her house. It’s hard to say that it’s safe, but it’s calm there, and she doesn’t want to come to Germany. We tried.”

The ballerina, who will perform in Parish’s piece and also dance, “The Dying Swan,” conceded that, “the war is horrible, and I feel very sorry for all the Ukrainian citizens, but as an artist, when you go onstage you’re a different person. It helps you escape your reality. Even if you don’t feel good, or [you’re] not in the mood, when you go onstage, you can usually forget about everything. Performances help me to feel better about the current situation.”

As for Fokine’s iconic choreography, Bednenko asserts that it’s always a challenge, because with each teacher, from her first in Donetsk to those in St. Petersburg, she likes to include something unique in every performance. “When you really feel every centimeter of your body, it takes a very special part in my repertory.

“Of course, you can go onstage and do technically everything right, but it will not work out until you put all your soul into it, put something in each movement—how you raise your head—your finger,” exclaimed Bednenko, who became a Knight of the Order of the Arts of Ukraine in 2020.

“And it depends on your current emotional situation, what you have in your life. You try to bring all of this together and put it into the solo. I’m very happy to dance this special piece again, to live through this experience again and again.”

Bednenko, like many of her compatriots, is imbued with that Ukrainian life-force, and acknowledges that she’s “a strong person inside. For me, it was a hard decision to leave my country, like going to St. Petersburg when I was 20.

“But I have a strong feeling inside, maybe now it’s a new part of my life, work[ing] in a beautiful company in Dusseldorf with interesting contemporary choreographers. I’m not afraid to continue and I am sure the Ukrainian spirit is helping a lot. They won’t give up and I won’t give up.”

Joy Womack. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Another fiercely committed dancer who never gives up is Joy Womack, the first American woman to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and the second American woman to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet. Formerly with Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Womack will be performing in Parish’s work, as well as dancing with Vsevolod Maevsky in the pas de deux from, “The Flames of Paris.”

Catching up with Womack in Tennessee by Zoom, where she was teaching at Nashville Ballet, the dancer said she was in Poland in February when the conflict broke out. “They couldn’t get me a flight back to Russia. I left everything I had in Russia, and I was scheduled to dance “Don Quixote.”

Following the news closely, Womack, whose life is the subject of a biopic, Joika, inspired by her time at the Bolshoi and features Talia Ryder as a 15-year old Womack and Diane Kruger as the ballerina’s mentor, with Womack choreographing the ballets, admitted she goes through bouts of anxiety where she is unable to sleep at night.

“Some of the friends I was working with were served papers to be drafted into the army and who have had to walk over the border to get out. In the Stanislavsky Theater, they were drafting a lot of soloist boys, and people waited until things got worse and then they started mobilizing people in the theater.

“There was a big wave back in March,” exclaimed Womack, “and now there’s another big wave. People I was speaking to in my theater were trying to get me to come back, even as recently as last week. They thought I was a traitor, that I had no loyalty, how could I do this when Russia gave me so much?”

The dancer, 28, was awarded Russian citizenship last year and said that prior to the war, she was feeling patriotic and part of a culture that had embraced her. “I think this production is a statement that we don’t like what’s happening. So being able to come together and share what we learned in front of an audience that hasn’t gotten to see us is important, because we don’t want to lose those traditions that we learned over there.

“It’s been a really hard time for most of us. We feel lost as artists,” added Womack. “We made our homes in the theaters of Russia. It’s like a church the way it works. For eleven months a year, the repertory rotates. You make your home with the roles you dance; in the West you are limited in your performance opportunities. You can visit “Swan Lake” every few seasons, but in Russia, it’s every two months.

“I don’t believe art should be related to politics. I believe art is an organic cultural bridge between nations. When we start to build walls, we block roads from communication. I’m very disappointed, and in a way,” Womack bemoaned, “it’s a burial. I’ve been lost for the past six months. But it’s okay because we have the barre, our routine, and performances like this keep you focused and you can concentrate on your daily routine instead of asking big questions that can make you depressed.”

Boris Zhurilov. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Boris Zhurilov, formerly with Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, was born in St. Petersburg, and after completing his training at Vaganova, joined the Mariinsky. Speaking by Zoom through a translator from Budapest, where he is currently a member of Hungarian National Ballet, the 34-year old recalled that everyone was in shock when the war broke out.

“From the beginning, we don’t understand what was going on and how long it’s going to be, how serious this situation with Ukraine was, that tomorrow I will wake up and everything will be fine. We hope, but nothing is changing, and the situation is worse and worse and worse.”

Dancing, though, helps ease the emotional toll the war continues to take, and Zhurilov will be performing the pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” with Laura Fernandez, the pas de quatre from “Raymonda,” as well as performing in Parish’s work.

He, too, believes there is no place for politics in art. “It’s hard for artists to talk about their politics, because they need to continue to work, to earn money to feed their families. Dancers—people of art—their main role is to go on the stage, do a good performance and make people happy. Dancers aren’t good at understanding politics and maybe they shouldn’t even try.

“People of art shouldn’t be punished for this,” added Zhurilov. “I know a lot of friends and colleagues from Russia who are scared to say anything about war and their opinions, because they need to continue to work, to earn money to feed their families.”

As for Parish, he recognizes that in the Russian government, art is a soft power, “probably more than in the West. I’ve learned a lot about this, being there 12 years—just how powerful the arts are and the people you meet, it’s a privilege. Especially now, the arts are one of the strongest threads that are difficult to surrender.

“When all else fails,” added Parish, “probably the arts will be the first thing to return. I hope that we, as artists, have this responsibility, that we, as a group, didn’t make this concert for political purposes, but because we wanted to dance together. As friends and ex-colleagues, we didn’t want to lose that thread—our love for Russia and Russian culture—separate from the regime, of course. It’s our responsibility to honor what we’ve learned and take it forward.

“If I can take what I’ve learned,” Parish avowed, “the great weight of classical ballet from my coaches at the Mariinsky, who learned from their coaches, Fokine, Petipa—you get fed at the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi, which is such an honor and can’t be thrown away—if we can dance together, this gives us momentum to continue.”

“Reunited in Dance” gala will be performed at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, Costa Mesa, California on November 12, 2022.