Siphesihle (“Siphe”) November, the National Ballet of Canada’s youngest principal dancer and only the second Black principal dancer in the company’s 70-year history, makes his debut as Prince Siegfried in the National Ballet’s latest production of Swan Lake this month.
The rise of Mr. November, 23, through the ballet ranks can be credited to his incredible technique, the passion he brings to each movement and a magnetic pull that draws you in while he’s onstage. Offstage, he’s racking up followers on Instagram, where he weaves together fashion, travel and classical ballet mixed with modern music.
The South African dancer’s talent was noticed as a child in his hometown of Zolani, when he and his brothers were performing in local shows for the community. A visiting family from Toronto encouraged him to audition for Canada’s National Ballet school. At the age of 12, he was accepted on full scholarship and went to live with the family to start his training.
Mr. November spoke about the importance of Black representation in ballet and why he’s so optimistic about the future of the art form on Friday’s episode of The Decibel.
What is it about ballet that speaks to you?
One thing that I do really enjoy is the pursuit of perfection. Some people don’t understand that it doesn’t exist, but knowing that it doesn’t exist makes the journey to try and get there really exciting.
You know, that feeling where someone says “wow that was perfect” even though they know it wasn’t, but there’s something about it that speaks to perfection – that’s where the magic is.
Also, the opportunity to represent a different person really excites me. I could have done any other style of dance, but I think the pursuit of representing and hopefully excelling along the way really keeps me motivated.
What was it like for you as a young, Black South African coming to train at the National Ballet School?
When I joined the school, it was one of the first times I’d seen so many kids from all over the world. It was in a way really refreshing. There was this shared passion for what we did.
And then, as you get older, you understand the complexities of the world when it comes to dealing with race and finding your place in it.
I’m from South Africa. You are faced with racism every day. I get on a plane to South Africa and you could just feel it in the air. But in a professional sense, I think for the first time, I was kind of questioning my existence in the classical-ballet setting. Even though the company has had Black dancers, when I first joined, it was just me.
Obviously everybody knew, and the company knew, that they could do better – and I think they did. There is an understanding now, and I think that’s beautiful to see.
What is it like for you having the highest-ranking position at a ballet company and at the same time representing Blackness in a world that has for a long time lacked diversity?
Stepping up in rank allows for me to have a wider reach and more engagement with different parts of the community. I never really imagined it for me and I can only imagine if, when I was younger, I could have just seen it. Because, even though you may be allowed, if you don’t know and you’re not told, I can only assume that you don’t want me.
The biggest shift is that we opened up the conversation to everybody and we opened the book for all to see. I think that there is more to come from me, but there’s also more to come from others that are coming up. That’s a beautiful feeling.
You’re dancing the role of Prince Siegfried in the National Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake, which is a reimagined version of the classical ballet. How in your view does this version modernize the story?
There’s a human element. People have little moments where they can create their own kind of relationship, and it’s kind of ambiguous as to what it is. There’s a lot of integrated partnering – men and women, men and men – which really allows for it to feel like a conversation. It’s still very, very classical, but I think it has a life.
Classical ballet is an art form with a long history, and because of that we have tales about princes and princesses, heteronormative storylines and even ballets that have been criticized for racially stereotyping. Do you think classical ballet is out of touch?
It wouldn’t have survived in 300 years if it was out of touch. So, I think the people who are responsible, who are in charge, maybe they’re a little out of touch. I don’t think the art form itself is out of touch.
You’ve also ventured into the world of choreography. What stories do you want to tell with your work?
Just stories about humanity. I know at some point I’ll probably want to create works about home, about one’s journey or get into political stuff, and I’ll keep that door open. If I create work that’s honest and comes from the right place, that evolution should naturally happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Listen to the full interview with Siphe November on The Decibel.