How peculiarly incongruous it was to have enjoyed a unique happening in the aftermath of ballet’s most ubiquitous event. It is exceedingly rare to see a British dancer, not the least, a Yorkshireman, gain promotion to the rank of Principal after a performance on the Royal Opera House stage. But, it’s happened before, even for Yorkshiremen. However, for a Brit to have been promoted to this top echelon of the Mariinsky Ballet is truly making history. That such an exclusive happening occurred in the margins of a performance of the world’s most popular ballet, in a production that dates back to 1950, was the delicious paradox.

Xander Parish is the history man. This modest and unassuming dancer, from Hull, joined the St Petersburg-based Mariinsky from The Royal Ballet, in 2010. Many commentators and balletomanes have bemoaned his loss to The Royal, despairing that Parish was the precious jewel that was given away. History may have been written by last night’s promotion, but it can never be re-made, retrospectively (though, many try). Had Xander stayed at The Royal Ballet, in 2010, perhaps he would already have been a Principal, by now? Who knows? 

What we can say, with certainty, is that Parish has worked tirelessly to deserve his new-found elite status. Dancing the role of Siegfried, at this performance, he presented an opulent range of princely gifts, fusing the best of British and Russian schools: long, deceptively leisurely arabesques were embedded in poetic movement that calls to mind Anthony Dowell; secure partnering; cool jumps with notable ballon and the softest of landings; plus charismatic mime and gesture, expressing the Prince’s story with unabated clarity.  

The role of Prince Siegfried is enhanced within Konstantin Sergeyev’s venerable production by a doleful solo in the transition between the two scenes of Act I, which encapsulate the young man’s dilemma. Even with the unfortunate distraction of some heavy item crashing to the floor, offstage, at the beginning of his solo, Parish’s expressive and lyrical movement spoke cogently of his unhappiness with a cocooned life at court. If Parish is the precious gem that The Royal Ballet lost, then here is a jewel enveloped in liquid gold.  

This performance of Swan Lake – the first of eight, in the Mariinsky London Season – was especially beautiful in the “white” Acts (normally, Acts II and IV but, in this version, the second scene of Act I and Act III). The corps de ballet was always the loveliest of visions with beautifully shaped arms and a uniform eloquence of movement and phrasing. Each of the iconic sequences embedded within every classical production of Swan Lake was securely and vigorously performed; with special mention due to an exceptional Act I pas de trois, particularly well danced by Nadezhda Batoeva and Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova, ably partnered by Filipp Stepin (whom I well recall, in the same role, back in the 2011 Season).

The special circumstances surrounding Parish’s performance should not diminish the sublime presence of Viktoria Tereshkina in the dual role of Odette/Odile. A late replacement for Oxana Skorik, Tereshkina was an absolute delight in both roles: delicate, vulnerable and gossamer-light in the “white” scenes; seductive and ebullient in the “black” act, whipping out more than 32 fouettés, singles and doubles, with an admirable ease borne of amazing technique. I was sad to miss Skorik, but what a substitute (akin to Barcelona FC bringing on Lionel Messi, to replace Neymar)!   

In terms of sets, costumes and national dances, it is true that the Sergeyev production seems a little dog-eared, not the least in the hiccoughing swans that jerk across the backdrop (the mechanism seemingly in need of a little oil). But, with dancing that commands every superlative; and an orchestra that plays Tchaikovsky’s melodious, descriptive music, appropriately, like the orchestra that has always “owned” it; frankly, little else matters. For me, the overture is the best capsule prologue to a ballet story, imaginable; and played as expressively as this, it clears the mind of all everyday concerns. A perfect cleansing of the palette for the sumptous fare to come.    

The Royal Ballet is still more than a decade short of its centenary and it is always salutary to reflect that the Mariinsky was already 150 years-old when Ninette de Valois laid down the foundations of British ballet. The Mariinsky’s longevity is only half encapsulated in Swan Lake, a ballet that was first performed, in St Petersburg, as a memorial to its composer, in 1894.   Sergeyev’s production came along more than half-a-century later, still before The Royal Ballet had acquired its name. 

This history is what makes any visit by the Mariinsky, a very special affair; and with the creation of its first-ever British Principal, this ancient company is still making history.