On Thursday, February 6, a man approached the microphone during the post-screening Q & A for Vikram Dasgupta’s documentary Beyond Moving at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. The documentary showcases the life and career of Siphesihle November, second soloist at The National Ballet of Canada. Into the vibrating silence, the man said, “I don’t actually have a question, I apologize, but I’m Siphe’s father, Scott.” Silence followed by thunderous applause. He continued, thanking Dasgupta and explaining that he had never had the opportunity to speak publicly about his adopted son. “It’s not often that a documentary gets made about one of your children. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Africa, but the people there are so wonderful that it makes you want to help. I was walking in the town one night and saw this happy, energetic kid, and I thought, ‘I just need to help him.’ I didn’t know how, but I wanted to make his life better however I could,” he said.
November started taking formal dance lessons when he was seven years old in Zolani, South Africa. His first dance teacher, Fiona Sutton, visited from the neighbouring town to teach, and it was she who spearheaded November’s early training. At eleven years old, November was accepted into Canada’s National Ballet School and was adopted by Scott Mathison and Kelly Dobbin in order to facilitate his move to Toronto. In 2017 he joined The National Ballet of Canada as a member of the corps and was promoted to second soloist in 2019.
At twenty-one years old, November, who is ordering a pizza during an hour between rehearsals at the ballet a few weeks after the screening, became the subject of Dasgupta’s documentary almost by accident. A project initiated by Canada’s National Ballet School was originally projected to cover several dance-related storylines, but it became clear that November’s narrative was one the filmmakers wanted to explore in more depth.
After years of shooting, the final product premiered at the Doc Edge International Film Festival in Auckland, New Zealand, in June 2019. The Canadian premiere was part of the Hot Docs’ Doc Soup series on February 5, 2020.
Beyond Moving chronicles November’s move from Zolani, South Africa, when he was eleven years old to Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. Dasgupta offers the audience a portrait into this journey by interviewing November’s mother, Sylvia November; his brother, Mthuthu; his adoptive Canadian parents, Kelly Dobbin and Scott Mathison; the artistic director and CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School, Mavis Staines; and, of course, his first dance teacher, Sutton.
The documentary is full of home video clips from when November was as young as eight. One clip shows him giggling his way through a vocal warm-up during a music class then later joyfully clapping when the group finishes their song, landing him in trouble. While home videos show what November was like as a child, Dasgupta’s crew began filming in earnest in 2015, when November was around sixteen years old.
“It’s been a process. It’s been like four or five years of filming, so [Dasgupta and I] really got to know each other,” November says. “We have a good rapport, and we bounce off each other really well.” November remembers feeling a great deal of autonomy during filming, but he says, “I didn’t have anything I didn’t want shown. And I also think I trusted [Dasgupta] enough to know when things weren’t right to be shown.” The editing, in which only the filmmakers have power of decision-making, was the part November found the most unsettling. “When I went to the first screening, I was like ‘I have no idea what I’m going to see.’ And given the power of film, the narrative could be completely changed.” But he was happy with the final product. “I think it portrayed my story the best way anyone could,” he says.
When asked during the Q & A in February what his reasons were for telling this story, Dasgupta explained that the film reveals them as it moves. He simply decided to focus on the obvious driving forces at work: the viewer’s feeling of love for both the act of dance and for the young November.
“[The film] captures dance so beautifully. I think that’s what is so potent about it,” November says. He praises the director for managing to make dance “a vehicle to drive the story forward” instead of interrupting narrative flow to pepper in choreography.
Sutton reminisces in the film about telling the eleven-year-old November he’d been invited to audition for Canada’s National Ballet School. The road into Zolani passes under a ridge topped with the ruins of an English fort built during the second Boer War; it was there that she shared the news with him. “I do remember that actually, her telling me how important and how special it was,” November says. “She said I had to enjoy every little moment but to always remember that there wasn’t any guarantee that I wouldn’t have to come back.” November cites this as a crucial moment for him: “I realized I would have to work — knowing that I might not stay there. And that was the one thing I did know: I didn’t want just a taste; I wanted the whole thing.”
Staines explains in the film how difficult it can be to judge a dancer by an audition tape. Judging fairly often requires a proximity that film can’t provide. November’s tape proved to be an exception, however, and she remembers marvelling at the natural affinity for movement that radiated from him even through video.
November explains that he hopes audiences come away from the film with a new or augmented appreciation for dance. “The beauty of dance, but also the importance of dance, and how it can truly change people’s lives — affect people and move people,” he says. He also speaks of the importance of representation in dance. “We all come from different backgrounds and there’s talent in all these pockets of the world, and if we open our eyes to that, we can make a big change.”
Beyond Moving was scheduled to screen April 17 through 19 at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatre is temporarily closed.