Guest dancer Joseph Phillips on Prince Siegfried, winning and Philippine ballet
By Jv Ramos
After dancing about 30 full-length Swan Lake productions, many years of going through almost every male role in it (except for Von Rothbart) since he began his career, and being part of present-day interpretations of this all-time favorite ballet piece, American dancer and Ballet Manila guest artist Joseph Phillips – up to now – is still being called to the “Lake of Tears.”
This time, his call involves being Prince Siegfried in Ballet Manila’s upcoming full-length production of Swan Lake. And, while this so-called “Golden Boy of Ballet” favors and is accustomed to the company’s “very strict Vaganova” technique, he’s pretty bummed that the classic he’s guesting in doesn’t reveal much of what he is capable of as a dancer.
“There’s not much excitement to dancing in Swan Lake if you’re a male dancer. It’s really about the women. Here, I’m doing a lot of walking on stage,” expresses Joseph, with a laughter that’s directed more towards his frankness, rather than the role of Prince Siegfried. But this dancer is quick to remind the audience that portraying the royal son comes with its own challenges.
He explains that all the walking makes it easy for any dancer to fall out of character, which the audience could easily detect. Thus, to remain as Prince Siegfried throughout the entire performance, he starts an “inner dialogue” with himself. “I dive deeper into his character while walking around. I would think of all the details – that Siegfried’s father had just died, that he’s only 21 and that he has to face his duty. I go deeper and deeper to be a better Siegfried.”
Having one’s mind in one place, however, isn’t just for idler dance sequences. Joseph, who has been dancing for about 20 years now, notes that every dance – be it for an audience who doesn’t know much about ballet or a competition that has well-versed judges – requires 100 percent focus. “You cannot worry about turns that you’re about to do,” emphasizes Joseph. “You have to be in the moment and focused on what you’re currently doing. When I would mess up on stage, it’s usually because my mind is all over the place.”
Still on the topic of fierce focus, which he admits take years to master, the guest artist shares that part of it is blocking out all the negativity in your head. “Whenever I went to a competition, I never thought that I would lose.” Such boldness worked for him! Since 2001, Joseph has been garnering awards from several prestigious ballet competitions; winning the most medals among American dancers has earned himthe “golden boy” monicker.
So, where does this decorated ballet dancer keep all his medals? “They’re with my mom,” proudly answers our subject, revealing that much of his success has to do with the way he was raised. “I think that to have a good parent is the most important thing… My mother made me believe that I could be the best. She never put a doubt in my mind!”
Regarding what he is thinks of the Philippine ballet scene, Joseph observes that its top three players – Ballet Manila, Ballet Philippines and Philippine Ballet Theater – companies that he’s all danced with) “are very different and unique in their own way.” But what they do have in common, he says, is heart. The American expresses that there are a lot of good ballet dancers in the Philippines, and that he enjoys the works of choreographers Alice Reyes, Bam Damian and Gerardo Francisco, whose Ibong Adarna Joseph got to watch last month.
“It’s more of a theatrical piece more than a ballet piece, since there’s singing and acting,” analyzes Joseph. “But I’m impressed, considering that it’s his first full-length. I think that piece is going to be a classic. Ballet Manila has come up with a masterpiece.”
As for the audiences who watch ballet in Manila, Joseph says, “They’re very vocal for the most part and they love taking selfies. I don’t think I’ve ever done as many selfies with people in any country before.”
Joseph shares that despite having had six ankle surgeries and finding it harder to do things because “injury changes you,” he doesn’t see himself slowing down or retiring any time soon. After Swan Lake, he’ll be headed to Australia to perform, then is planning to go to the United States for some shows together with Katherine Barkman, Ballet Manila’s principal dancer and his partner in the said classic.
“I still want to dance. I’m 32 and I think that’s still too young to hang up my shoes. In my mind, I’m probably going to retire by around 39 or even 40,” says Joseph. “I also think I’m too young to be a teacher full-time.”
Despite this, Joseph admits to already exploring what he can do after dance. When he’s not busy rehearsing, he conducts interviews with fellow winning colleagues and ballet judges whom he’s encountered in various competitions, hoping to come up with a book that would guide dancers also dreaming of competing in international events. Being tech-savvy, he, too, is developing an app related to dance – another unconventional path to spreading his passion.
“Every single day I think about what I’ll do after. But I’ve never thought of doing something that has nothing to do with dance. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid; it’s what I’m good at,” Joseph declares. “And, I think it’s sad if I were to just quit dancing. There’s so much that I can share about dance with others.”