(Canada, 84 min.)
Dir. Vikram Dasgupta
The story of Siphe November has been likened to that of Billy Elliot. While Billy Elliot grew up in a small town of Northern England where young boys were expected to become coal miners and not ballet dancers, Siphe November’s tale is also one of an unlikely ballet star. Beyond Moving, directed by Vikram Dasgupta, profiles November and his trajectory to the world stage via Canada’s National Ballet School. At 22 years old, the South African November’s career is remarkable – not simply as one of very few Black men to lead a ballet, but also for inspiring future dancers to see that there is no limit to pursuing their dreams.
Beyond Moving, made in association with Canada’s National Ballet School, hits all the right inspirational notes as it shares November’s story. Dasgupta follows the young dancer’s pursuit and dedication to ballet from his days growing up in the segregated township of Zolani, South Africa. Beyond Moving tells how November’s lithe limbs and fluid movements caught the eye of dance teacher Fiona Sutton,. Although Siphe recalls how all the kids in the neighbourhood called him and his elder brother Mthuthu “Fionas” as they thrived under their tutor’s wing, he looks back on his origin story with neither regrets nor rose-coloured glasses.
The film furthers his Billy Elliot-ish journey to the centre stage thanks to the aid of a dogged teacher who believed in him. November’s first teacher recalls how taken she ways by the boy’s hypnotic stage presence. Sutton describes seeing an innate talent in November, who was just a young boy when she first encountered his balletic expression of classic dance and African tradition. It shares her story of recognizing from her privileged vantage point a boy who deserved the opportunity to learn, grow, and soar.
The film charts November’s impressive rise as Sutton nurtured his talents, honed his skills, and helped others take note of his abilities. Interviews with November and his supporters tell how the discerning eyes included a family of Canadian travelers, who helped November land a plum spot in Canada’s National Ballet School. Colleagues from the CNBS tell how November further refined his technique and got an education en route to becoming a professional dancer.
The story of Beyond Moving might not immediately sound remarkable, but don’t dismiss it as another rags-to-riches white saviour narrative. The film offers a compelling character study that speaks to access and opportunity. Dasgupta offers a mix of archival footage and contemporary images to show the natural talent in November’s skills on the dance floor as well as the obvious progression of his ability with the right bit of nurturing. Although November is not a particularly talkative subject and is fairly guarded in interviews, the observational elements of the film draw out the power of his story. It’s an important narrative about creating avenues for opportunity to level the playing field and to create supports for artists and athletes regardless of their backgrounds.
Beyond Moving inevitably plays favourably for Canada’s National Ballet School, as it rightly should given that November is a recent success story. However, the school’s involvement with the production makes the soft glow of the portrait rather obvious. While handsomely composed and undeniably valuable for the story it represents, Beyond Moving is a little too comfortable straddling the boundaries of documentary and public relations for comfort. A further remove between church and state might have let the audience deeper inside November’s life.
There is great drama, for example, to be found in his relationship with Sutton. His elder teacher back in South Africa can’t hide her pride in seeing how far the dancer has come, but she can’t hide her jadedness, either. Dasgupta finds some disarming comments from Sutton as she speaks bitterly about being short-changed the credit she felt she deserved for finding him. The former teacher also doesn’t mince words about her disappointment with November for failing to show manners and respect for his roots when he returns home. Similarly, some touching words from November’s mother, Sylvia, bring the film to a close as she reminds him not to forget his roots along the journey. When people open up in Beyond Moving, the film finds some great material that might have opened up a wider story about the pressures artists face when they’re expected to uphold standards for entire communities.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the success story of this dancer. The dance sequences are the obvious highlights of Beyond Moving and there are dance sequences a-plenty. The film showcases November’s extraordinary gift with behind the scenes rehearsal footage and some conventionally shot images of him dancing onstage. Beyond Moving really soars, though, when it connects November with his roots and captures his movement outdoors. Some gorgeously shot sequences see him dance while kicking up the sand. He moves rhythmically against the twilight sky. Dasgupta and his team of cinematographers have a fine eye for the body and its cinematic body. One can easily see why November is a star.
Beyond Moving screens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Feb. 5, 6, and 8.
Siphe November and director Vikram Dasgupta and will be in attendance at each screening for a Q&A.