Despite all the theatre closures caused by COVID-19, Siphesihle November still finds a way to dance. In the lockdown videos the Toronto resident posts regularly on Instagram (@deshgrey), he spirals, bops, and glides to a hip-hop beat, the quintessence of cool. Dressed in high-tops and baggy sweats in these improvised solo creations, Siphe (pronounced “See-pay”) looks nothing like the classically trained dancer usually attired in slippers and form-fitting costumes at the National Ballet of Canada where he is a rising star. Regardless of a recent promotion to first soloist (one rung below the top-tier position of principal dancer), social media remains his only stage right now, and the powder-keg performer is making the most of it, maintaining his momentum as an elite Black male ballet dancer on his way up. Nothing will stop him, not even the pandemic. “Dance defines me,” he says. “It is who I am.”
At 22, Siphe formed that identity early on while growing up in Zolani, a farming community two hours east of Cape Town. Like many young Black South Africans of his generation, he first came to dance through Kwaito, a variant of house music and local rhythms that first gained popularity in Johannesburg in the 1990s. The music commands an emotional response, and the accompanying dancing a bold personality combined with physical prowess. Siphe danced Kwaito in his segregated township, and it instilled a passion that has determined the course of his life. “When you are performing dance in South Africa,” Siphe says, “it’s all about the feeling, about creating a presence, and bringing people into your world.”
This is evident in director Vikram Dasgupta’s 2019 Beyond Moving documentary, which uses archival footage and contemporary dance sequences to explore the dancer’s remarkable rise from the streets of Zolani to the international stage. In the film, Siphe’s ability to fuse the immediacy of African vernacular dance with the precision and elegance of classical ballet sets him apart.
His jet-propelled athletic flourishes thrill audiences. But that bravura style is tempered with thoughtful expressiveness, lyrical nuance, and impeccably clean lines—a result of rigorous training and consistent studying of other male dancers past and present. Among them are Mikhail Baryshnikov and Royal Ballet principal Marcelino Sambé, another classical dancer of African descent now making his mark and who Siphe calls an inspiration and role model. His own ambition is to follow Sambé’s lead and to grow the small but gifted group of Black male dancers currently commanding attention in the highly competitive world of classical dance. Its ranks include American Ballet Theatre’s Calvin Royal III—only the third Black principal for the New York company, following Desmond Richardson and Misty Copeland, the celebrated African American ballerina whose colour-barrier-breaking promotion in 2015 made international headlines.
A devoted student and practitioner of the dance, Siphe is next in line, a celebrity in the making. He combines verve and grace in one compact package, what in ballet is known as the wow factor. That fusion of old- and new-world styles and traditions—Kwaito combined with classical dance—has rarely been tried before, and largely because ballet, to a kid from the townships, is itself something of a rarity.
In Siphe’s case, it was a chance encounter enabled by Fiona Sutton Sargeant, a former British ballerina today more widely known for her work with Dance for All, an organization that brings ballet into the Western Cape townships of South Africa. An exceptional Royal Academy of Dance–certified teacher, she passed away in 2017 from cancer, but not before leaving behind a legacy in the form of Siphe and his older brother, Mthuthuzeli November, today a professional dancer with England’s acclaimed Ballet Black dance company. When she first came to the townships, offering ballet classes to children, the November brothers were among the first to sign up. They traded their soccer shorts for tights and then had to endure the taunts of their mates, who loudly called them “Fionas.” But it was worth it. “That’s when I fell in love with ballet,” Siphe says.
Smaller and more rubber-limbed than his sibling, Siphe brought his swagger to bear on his study of classical dance, making it hard for people not to notice. “He just stood out,” says Toronto midwife Kelly Dobbin, recounting the time she first laid eyes on him dancing on a small gymnasium stage. It was 2009, the year she and her then husband, Scott Mathison, had travelled to South Africa with their two small children for an extended three-month vacation. They had heard about Miss Fiona and her intrepid ballet classes, and decided to enroll their daughter, mainly to meet other community members. At a year-end recital, they saw Siphe perform and couldn’t help but stare. His charisma eclipsed everything in the room. “We were immediately captivated. He really shone, and he connected with the audience like no one else on that stage.”
Through Sargeant, the Canadians got to know the diminutive boy with the oversized talent and offered to help advance his dance studies. It was decided to send him to boarding school in neighbouring Montagu where Sargeant could teach Siphe several days a week instead of just once a week in the township. They paid for his tuition and, once back in Toronto, kept in touch with his progress via Skype. At the request of Siphe and his family, they then arranged for him to submit a performance tape to Canada’s National Ballet School, eventually hosting him at their Little Italy home during the month-long NBS audition process. At the end of it, Siphe was offered a full scholarship and a chance to train at one of the world’s best dance academies. But to accept would entail moving 13,000 kilometres away from home to live with the Canadian family who had helped him actualize his potential. Though he would miss his cannery-worker mother, Sylvia, his sole parent, even at the age of 11, he knew it was an opportunity too great to turn down. “My end goal was just to dance,” Siphe says. “For me, it has always been dance first.”
At the NBS, where he trained for seven years, Siphe mastered ballet’s rudimentary pliés and fixed body positions before flying upward in explosive saut de basque jumps and grands jetés. The school’s also where he became the beneficiary of a Western ballet heritage combining a variety of national styles—the lyricism of the English, the athleticism of the Americans, the buoyancy of the Danes, and the bravura of the Russians. Celebrated dance pedagogue Sergiu Stefanschi, a former Bucharest Opera House principal and graduate of St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy, personally oversaw Siphe’s dance education. Stefanschi taught him to jump higher, faster, stronger without losing a sense of elegance or polish. “He pushed me very hard to realize my talent as a ballet dancer,” Siphe says. “He was an amazing teacher, and he took great care of my training.”
Word of Siphe’s progress spread, and next to take notice was the National Ballet of Canada. The company wanted Siphe so badly it gave him a job immediately upon his graduation from the school in 2017, waiving the apprenticeship period required of most new recruits. “I watched Siphe at the performances at the National Ballet School and found him to be one of the most talented and intelligent dancers that I had seen, a natural and musical talent capable of ballet and contemporary dance at the highest level,” says artistic director Karen Kain.
Siphe came in at the entry level as a member of the corps de ballet. This is where dancers are part of a large group, encouraged to dance as one. You’re not supposed to stand out. But Siphe couldn’t help it. He was a Black dancer in a white wig holding a floral garland in the crowd scenes in The Sleeping Beauty. The National Ballet, throughout its 70-year history, has mostly conformed to a European ideal. Dancers of colour are a minority at the country’s largest classical dance company, where 18 out of 73 dancers, approximately one quarter, are non-Caucasian. Of those, eight are Black or multiracial, and because of that Siphe initially found it hard to fit in. “I think I was the only Black male dancer at that time. I was new to the company, and I was just going through a period of not knowing what I was really doing there. I was literally just questioning my position in that place for a couple of reasons—my colour and my height. I am 5 foot 7 inches, and the company is not just really white, it’s, like, crazy tall. I felt so out of place.” As such, Siphe took it upon himself to have a conversation with Kain about his concerns. “I literally said to her, ‘I’m looking at the works we are doing and the dancers we have, and I honestly don’t see myself represented. I don’t think I have a future in this company. I don’t think I can achieve my goals.’ ”
Kain made a pact. “I was hoping that he would choose the National Ballet of Canada as his artistic home, and I promised him that I would do my best to give him the best career that I could if he did,” she says.
Siphe’s ascendancy through the ranks proved swift, beginning with a star turn in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Shakespearean ballet The Dream and a distinguishing rendition of the demanding Bluebird variation in The Sleeping Beauty, both in 2018. The following year, the National selected him to represent the company at the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, where his fleet-footed solo in the quintessential Romantic ballet La Sylphide took the top award for a male dancer.
A heady mixture of old, new, narrative, and abstract, these ballets tested Siphe’s ability to master a variety of dance styles in a relatively short time. He rose to the challenge, paving the way for his status as a superstar Black dancer, and at a fairly young age. “To be a dancer of the future, you need to be able to be versatile,” he says. “I take a lot of pride and put in a lot of work in trying to be a classical dancer with a wide range, able to do everything from the Bournonville style to the classical white tights pieces where your technique is very exposed. That’s the kind of work I want to do, and at the National I am able to do it.”
Siphe had been planning to build on those past successes and soar even further ahead, and at the start of the 2020 season, he appeared to be right on target—exploding onto the stage like fireworks in Harald Lander’s technically rigorous Études and embodying the ephemeral ideal at the heart of Crystal Pite’s Angels’ Atlas, a world premiere exploring the fleeting fragility of the dancing form. The opening night performance of Pite’s new ballet took place at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at the end of February. Siphe’s solo performance electrified, attracting strong reviews, including from the choreographer herself. “Creating with him felt like having unlimited access to the work’s core content: the body as a location, a place where being is temporarily held and shaped,” Pite says from her home in Vancouver. “You don’t want his dancing to be ephemeral. You just want to have it, hold it, share it with everyone forever.”
But then, just over a week after Siphe’s sparkling debut, the dancing did stop—and the whole world along with it—because of the coronavirus pandemic. The curtain came crashing down on all dance shows everywhere. For a young dancer on the cusp of greatness, the timing couldn’t have been worse. “I had so many goals I had wanted to achieve,” Siphe says. “But I’m now a dancer who can’t perform, I can’t go on stage, so that’s the hard part. And if I can’t perform and I can’t be in the studio, then who am I?”
Though all performances are cancelled right now, there’s discernible movement taking place behind the scenes. For Siphe and the National Ballet alike, the cessation of all normal activity has provided a rare opportunity for deep reflection about the future of dance. “Will I be able to come back to being a classical dancer? Will classical ballet even exist in the same way as before? Can I continue on the same path? I’ve started to question everything,” Siphe says.
The National’s executive director Barry Hughson is similarly doing some soul searching right now, primarily involving how the National Ballet could do a better job creating equity across all levels of the company. “What COVID has created, which is a positive thing,” he says, “is a space to have some difficult conversations.”
The talk started three years ago, when the National Ballet joined forces with the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO). But it has accelerated during the lockdowns, even more so in the wake of last summer’s racial justice riots. “After George Floyd’s murder, we did turn our attention to anti-Black racism in our community and certainly within our organization,” Hughson says. “We turned up the heat.”
The National Ballet, throughout its 70-year history, has mostly conformed to a European ideal. Dancers of colour are a minority; 18 out of 73 dancers, approximately one quarter, are non-Caucasian. Of those, eight are Black or multiracial.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Originating in the royal courts and aristocratic ballrooms of Renaissance Europe, classical dance is an art form whose highest expression is le ballet blanc—literally “the white ballet”—a mid-19th-century creation embodied by pale-skinned ballerinas in snowy tutus. White in ballet traditionally represents moral superiority. Black is the evil swan queen who creates chaos in the second act of Swan Lake. Racial inclusion has rarely been the point of classical dance. Says former National dancer Kathleen Rea: “When I was in the corps [from 1992 to 1996], there was not one single Black female dancer. I don’t think I had ever seen a Black female dancer working for the company. There were some Black male dancers, but there was less pressure on them to conform.” When performing Swan Lake, “the corps de ballet was required to white out any exposed skin with white makeup,” Rea says. “Before we went on stage, the ballet mistress would inspect all members to make sure our exposed skin was evenly white. The dancers with darker skin were often sent back to put on more white makeup.”
The National now realizes it has to address its problem of racial bias. “Ballet companies have a long history of inequity and racial discrimination, including The National Ballet of Canada,” reads a statement posted on its website in recent months. “We are committed to change.”
To some observers, Siphe’s recent promotion is symbolic of that change. “All major ballet companies are grappling with how to alter perceptions of how dancers of colour can be cast in a 19th-century repertoire,” says Linda Maybarduk, a former National Ballet first soloist and past president of the Dance in Canada Association. “I am watching from afar, but I can see that the National Ballet truly is making every effort to implement positive change. It’s something that has to happen.” (Several current National Ballet dancers were contacted about the topic but declined to comment on record.)
Other initiatives from the National include the establishment of a cross-departmental equity, diversity, and inclusion task force—a company first. The National has also further diversified its board of directors, whose present chair is Black Toronto lawyer Cornell Wright. Non-Caucasian voting members of the board grew from approximately 3 per cent in the 2017/18 season to 16 per cent in 2020/21. “We’re proud of the progress, but we’re aware we still have lots and lots of work to do, not only as an institution but as an art form,” Hughson says. “We are leaning inward to understand the experience of non-white dancers within the organization, both in the past and today. What does it mean to go forward? How do we shift the change so that non-white dancers don’t see any barriers to their progression?”
But the transition from a European to a more culturally diverse model of ballet still needs some figuring out. African American corps de ballet member Nicholas Rose quit the National Ballet last summer after publicly criticizing the company for not doing enough to support its dancers of colour. For Siphe, promoting equity within the dance world is something he is actively working on. “If I am not the one that’s sticking it out here, and fighting this, and changing things, and showing that it is possible for a Black male dancer to be successful in a white ballet company, then I am only going to make it harder for everybody else,” Siphe says. “I don’t mind the responsibility as I think it can produce something positive.”
“My end goal is just to dance. For me, it has always been dance first.” — Siphe November
While no one can predict where ballet is headed right now, given the present situation, Siphe believes that things are moving in the right direction. “There’s a recognition and an acknowledgement of the problem,” he says, “and that’s always the first step. The work is starting.”
It’s made him feel that anything is possible, including one day becoming a principal dancer, something he previously never dreamed of. “I didn’t think it could happen before. I never saw myself represented in that way, and so I didn’t have any goals to be something I wasn’t seeing, if that makes sense. But now I want to be that, and so much more, because I know I can.”
Others think he can do it, too. “He has the potential to be a principal dancer,” Hughson says. “Siphe is an artist the likes of which you see only a few times in a generation.” Adding his voice to the chorus is Kevin Pugh, the first and only male dancer of colour in the history of the National Ballet to become a principal dancer. And that was way back in 1984. Of African American and Cherokee descent, Pugh is today an in-demand ballet teacher who maintains a link with his former company. He has seen Siphe in class and likes what he sees. “He’s got it,” Pugh says. “Often it’s a matter of having the right dancer come along at the right time, and Siphe’s that dancer.”
This is a hearty endorsement, and Siphe receives it with humility and gratitude. He wants to make a difference. He already has.
Stylist Shea Hurley; Hair and makeup Nate Matthews and D’Andra Morris; Production assistants Adé Abegunde and Andrew Moreno.