radical movement

An interview with Joseph Sissens, the Royal Ballet soloist captivating audiences
By Barry Pierce | Art | 10 May 2024
Photographer Harry Clark

To steal the format of a recent popular meme, the Royal Ballet staging a production of Swan Lake is a likely thing for them to do. In fact, at the matinee performance of the ballet on the 11th of May, the oboist will blow those first notes of Tchaikovsky’s melancholic score for the 1,081st time in the velvety red auditorium of the Royal Opera House. Making new a piece of art that’s a century old and a thousand performances in is no easy task, but it’s a prospect that excites Joseph Sissens, the 26-year-old first soloist who will be making his debut as Prince Siegfried, the male lead in Swan Lake.


“With ballet, the male can be seen as a bit of a coat hanger sometimes,” Sissens tells us in an ornate room deep within the rabbit warren that is the Royal Opera House. “What’s nice about Swan Lake is that it has one of the vulnerable princes.” It is true, if you’re a male ballet dancer, you do end up playing a surprising amount of princes. Aside from Siegfried in Swan Lake, you may be lucky enough to play the Prince in The Nutcracker, or Prince Florimond in The Sleeping Beauty. But whereas Florimond is traditionally played as a stud, or a courtly himbo, Siegfried is the opposite; sensitive, gentle and, of course, vulnerable. It’s those attributes that allow Sissens to flourish as Siegfried. “When I’m going on stage I still want to be me. I’m not stepping into Prince Butch.”

Growing up in Hertfordshire, Sissens came to dance in that time-honoured way, through watching his sister in her dance classes. He was a shy and introverted child, but this would have been news to him at the time. “My mum told me recently that I didn’t have any toys, I was very quiet and very, very sensitive.” But when he danced, it was the first time Sissens displayed true personality. “I was silly and I was quick-witted and my mum was like, ‘where did this kid come from?’”

In rehearsals, it’s hard to believe that Sissens was ever a shy child. In his gym sweats, he has the giddiness of a class clown and his laugh regularly reverberates around the Royal Ballet’s huge rooftop rehearsal studios. Watching ballet in rehearsal is a far cry from the poised perfection expected on the Main Stage. When Sissens and Mariko Sasaki, his female lead in Swan Lake, finish a lengthy pas de deux, they erupt into guttural howls, panting and collapsing to the floor like tuckered-out toddlers. Their coach for this session, the ballerina and former principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky, checks her notebook. “OK,” she says. “A few notes…”

Photography by Harry Clark

It was Sissens’ mother, seeing a new lust for life in her “little quiet Joe,” who ushered him towards dance competitions. “My family situation wasn’t a healthy or safe one,” Sissens says, “And I think [my mother] saw that dance could be my way out.” That “way out” came in the form of Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. Having already made a name for himself on the local dance scene, Sissens turned up for an informal day of dance at the renowned, but local, school. By the end of the day, Tring’s director of dance had called Sissens’ mother offering him a place as a boarder. “I was eight, but I think my mum was like, ‘Is this house a safe environment for him? No.’”

As Sissens practises his tour en l’air in the studio, it’s hard to imagine that ballet was not his original vocation. “I hated ballet,” he laughs. “I really hated ballet. I wanted to be a tap dancer, I wanted to be in musical theatre!” But, the possibility of four weeks of summer school at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s prestigious training ground for younger teens in Richmond Park, arose. “I had only been there for two weeks but each day I was making severe progress, quite quickly. Then my mum got a phone call, quite like with Tring, from the director of dance at White Lodge and they like, ‘We want to offer him a place.’”

Though it is unlikely his intention, Sissens talks about the Royal Ballet School in anxiety-inducing terms. He mentions regular “culls” whereby whole year groups are cut in half, and then cut in half again, and again, until only the best of the best remain. To reach the Upper School, you have to go through a stringent audition process. And even at the end of all that, a place in the Royal Ballet is rare. But Sissens survived it all and graduated into the Company in 2016. “My life has continuously been a bit of a shock,” he says. “On the one hand I did decide, at eight, that I was going to make this happen but it has always felt like the other shoe will drop.” 

Photography by Harry Clark

Though Sissens has his hair tied up for this rehearsal, he wears it in dreadlocks on the Main Stage. Unlike the rest of the performing arts, ballet is still very much in the early stages of embracing diversity. Many of the problems lie with the form itself, originating during the Renaissance and being perfected in the court of King Louis XIV. “The foundations [of ballet] were set in isolation and in isolation of other minorities,” Sissens points out. “It’s based on privilege and whiteness, you know, the bows and the curtseying.” 

The most famous classical ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, Giselle, and The Nutcracker, all originated in the 19th century and they, unfortunately, have many of the attitudes and prejudices of that century at their core. If The Nutcracker with its “Arabian” and “Chinese” dances are uncomfortable to watch now, then the turbaned villains and temple dancers of La Bayadère are excruciating. But does Swan Lake, with its good white swan and evil black swan, not reinforce a very obvious, and offensive, racial binary?

Sissens could not disagree more. “I don’t see Odile as evil. I see Odile as another woman controlled by a man. It’s more of a feminist piece.” It’s true that Swan Lake is one of the few ballets of the era that doesn’t wear the century of its conception on its sleeve. But Sissens’ portrayal of the prince still feels so necessarily radical for the Main Stage. “I’m in the space as the prince who transcends both good and evil, and I’ve got braids in, and it’s completely something that hasn’t been seen on this stage.”

Back in rehearsals, as Sasaki practises Swan Lake’s gruelling thirty-two fouettés, Sissens is working on one of his solos from Act 3. The delicate athleticism of ballet dancers is often written about, but watching Sissens jeté and entrechat from just a few feet away feels like trickery; the laws of gravity and the structures of anatomy being brashly disregarded. Playing the role of Prince Siegfried is a dream Sissens never thought he’d be capable of. At the end of a recent practice performance of the ballet, he burst into tears. “I just felt I had no idea I could do this. I don’t think anyone understands, I had no idea I could pull this off.” 

And yet, Sissens will step out on the Main Stage and present a Siegfried never seen before. After 1,081 performances, Swan Lake will feel shockingly new again.

Buy tickets for Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House here.

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