By Laura Latzko
As Scorpius Dance Theatre’s Vampire King, Gavin Sisson stands out.
With his graceful aerial movements and intense expressions, he captivates audiences.
Sisson is a triple-threat, with dancing, acting and aerial experience.
Sisson also choreographs, serves as assistance director and teaches aerial dance for Scorpius.
In the greater Phoenix community, Sisson has recently explored new avenues of performance and charity through his drag persona Stella Prince.
Here’s a closer look at the different sides of Gavin Sisson.
For most of his time with Scorpius, Sisson has worked closely with Scorpius Artistic Director Lisa Starry.
As a choreographer, Sisson has brought a different perspective as a choreographer.
The multitalented dancer helped Lisa to bring more of an aerial focus to Scorpius, and in the last few years, the troupe has become known for its aerial work.
For Scorpius’ recent production of Animal, Sisson worked with Lisa to choreograph two pieces.
The show focused on the relationship between humans and pets and on the physical movements of animals.
For the production, Sisson worked with Lisa to choreograph a combined floor and aerial piece called Snakes and developed a lyra duet called Soaring, inspired by the bald eagle.
With Snakes, Sisson wanted to show a different side of the reptiles.
“Everybody’s scared of snakes, but if you stand back and you look at it for a second, they move with such grace and such form,” Sisson said.
With Soaring, the choreographer showcased the bald eagle’s “expansive wingspan” and ability to quickly maneuver in different directions.
Sisson tries to create a “floaty” and “airy” feeling within his choreography.
“As a dancer, since I was 8 years old, I’ve always wanted to reach that place of being off the floor and soaring…It makes gravity an almost non-existent part of movement. You get to really use the air as dancers use the floor,” Sisson said.
Sisson, a native of Belleville, Ill., began his performance career at a young age, doing musical theater and dance.
For his first show, he played a pickpocket and orphan in Oliver!
Growing up, Sisson learned different styles of dance, including jazz, ballet and tap.
For a number of years after his local dance studio closed, Sisson taught himself by watching and mimicking other dancers.
“If I’d see dance on television, I would copy it and make it my own,” Sisson said.
As an adolescent, Sisson realized the importance of combining acting and dance.
“I really saw that dancing was an extension of acting and that you had to do both to be able to get your point across,” Sisson said.
As an adult, Sisson started his professional career with the St. Louis MUNY Theatre.
Sisson said musical theater drew him because of all of the elements involved.
“I loved singing, dancing, making a fool out of myself and being the center of attention,” Sisson said.
Sisson went on to work for the Modern American Dance Company in St. Louis for four years before moving to New York, where he performed with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company.
He later moved back to St. Louis and became the principle dancer for the Modern American Dance Company and a teaching artist for St. Louis ArtWorks.
The dancer has been working with Scorpius since 2010 and has played the Vampire King, the role for which he is best known, since 2014.
Drag has given Sisson another avenue of expression, one filled with rhinestones, makeup and wigs.
Sisson always assumed he would do drag at some point in his life. Scorpius’ 2016 production of Catwalk allowed him to explore that side of himself as a performer.
Doing drag has opened up new possibilities for the performer.
“Getting older as a dancer, your body doesn’t want to do what it did when you were 18 years old, so you have to change how you entertain,” Sisson said. “It’s really fun letting that other personality come out and play. In the end, I really do think it makes you more of a whole artist because you are exploring those feminine sides with masculinity.”
On Aug. 13, Sisson will compete as Stella Prince in Dancing for One n Ten, a ballroom dance competition and fundraiser where community members and dance professionals are paired up.
Sisson competed as Stella Prince for the first time during the Miss Phoenix Pride Pageant, where he took fourth place.
As a contestant, he helped to raise money for the Phoenix Pride Scholarship Program.
Sisson said pageantry has taught him to be less stubborn and seek out help from others when he needs it.
During the experience, Sisson got to know a number of local drag queens.
“As cheesy as it sounds, it really does build that sisterhood bond. We’re all going through the same thing and reaching for the same star,” Sisson said.
His drive to give back to the community inspired the dancer to pursue drag.
“I have felt truly acknowledged during my time in Phoenix. I’ve felt safe. I’ve felt fostered and giving back that energy to my community, I think I can do that,” Sisson said.
In taking on a greater role in the LGBT community, Sisson has tried to bring something different as Amazonian drag queen Stella Prince.
“She’s a song and dance kind of girl. She just loves performing and making people smile,” Sisson said.
Performing in drag has also allowed Sisson to take on new roles within Scorpius, including emcee duties at special events.
During Scorpius’ upcoming Cosplay Ball on Sunday, May 28, Stella Prince will co-host with Faris Duval.
The event will also feature dance and aerial performances from Scorpius members, music from DJ Betty Blackheart and DJ Self Destruckt and a role-model-themed fashion show.
The Aerial Instructor
Not only does Sisson soar through the air, but he inspires and teaches others to do the same.
Since the troupe started its aerial training program three years ago, Sisson has been the aerial trainer.
Before that, Sisson worked with dancers every year on aerial leading up to the annual production of A Vampire Tale.
Many Scorpius dancers start doing aerial after joining the troupe.
Sisson said it takes dancers different lengths of time to learn aerial, depending on their strength and coordination.
The dancer also teaches classes for beginning-level to advanced aerial students at the studio.
Sisson said that anyone can learn aerial. They just have to be open to a new form of movement.
“The main thing is to be willing to allow yourself to change how you think and feel. It’s such a humbling feeling for anyone to be able to truly support their own weight safely off the ground,” Sisson said. “It takes a person taking a bit of risk and not taking themselves so seriously.”
Recently, other Scorpius dancers have started to take more of a leadership role, choreographing aerial pieces and teaching others. Sisson said this development has been important to the growth of the company.
“It solidifies the unity of the company and the movement itself,” Sisson said. “If we don’t train together, we won’t move like each other.”
The troupe works with apparatuses such as pulleys, lifts, silks, ropes and lyra.
Sisson cross trains on different apparatuses regularly to develop and hone his skills.
Before joining Scorpius, the dancer had dabbled in aerial and trained at the Circus Warehouse in New York. He began to get more serious about the art form after joining Scorpius.
His aerial journey with Scorpius started with a silks solo for Kick-A Showcase, a dance production that features choreography from company dancers.
“It is fun to look back at that solo to see how much I’ve grown from that,” Sisson said.
The theatrical aspects of aerial dance have always drawn Sisson. He first tried it because he wanted to explore different ways of moving.
“When I came into it, it was more about casting off the limitations of gravity and centrifugal force,” Sisson said. “The aspect of being airborne and spinning around in the air, it’s always been transporting to me.”
Even after doing aerial all this time, it still gives him a feeling of freedom.
“Anytime I get to be in the air and feel like I’m flying, it’s everything to me. It’s a little bit of heaven,” Sisson said.
Sisson once almost gave up dance. After moving to Arizona in 2010, he was pursuing a career in massage therapy and planning to retire from dance.
Taking a class with Nicole Olson, Scorpius’ Vampire Queen, started his journey in getting back into dance.
Doing aerial has allowed Sisson to continue to perform at a high level as he has gotten older.
Sisson brings his vast knowledge and experience to Scorpius as a dancer, choreographer and aerial instructor.
He said everything he has gone through, including the injuries over the years, have made him a better performer.
“Those choices have led me to where I needed to be. I gained a lot of experience during those years, and I get to use it now…It creates a bigger artist out of the human,” Sisson said.
The Vampire King
As members of the vampire coven, Gavin and other dancers need to to be multitalented.
A Vampire Tale requires them to bring the vampires to life through their movements, body language and facial expressions.
When he started out with Scorpius, Sisson played one of the members of the coven.
From the beginning, Sisson had the opportunity to develop his own unique character.
“Getting to involve myself in the storyline was intriguing. There are so many side stories for the coven…Getting to come in and build my own storyline in a show that had been around for seven years was unheard of,” Sisson said.
The dancer took over the role of the Vampire King after David Starry, the original Vampire King, decided to retire.
Sisson said at first, playing the Vampire King was intimating.
“That role was built on David Starry. Especially a role that’s created for someone, it’s a bit anxiety-ridden to take over that role,” Sisson said.
As the Vampire King, David was more of a “stoic watcher,” while Sisson has more of an emotional and physical connection with the Innocent, the Vampire Queen and the coven.
Sisson’s version of the Vampire King also has more of a tie to humankind and regrets over his fate.
“We had to recreate the character to have that presence onstage and to really make my movement come through as well,” Sisson said. “You have to put your own personality into the character to make it your own because otherwise, you’re just a regurgitation of that old character, and it doesn’t come across as authentic.”
Sisson was also able to make the role his own by bringing aerial into it.
He worked closely with Lisa to incorporate more aerial sections into A Vampire Tale and has helped to bring apparatuses into other shows and special events.
“It was just something I wanted to do for so long that I couldn’t help myself. I had to jump in and dedicate myself to it and open Lisa’s eyes to the possibilities of using aerial,” Sisson said.
Sisson’s trapeze entrance in the show started as a piece for Scorpius’ Catwalk…I Love Duran Duran.
In A Vampire Tale, Sisson’s character often interacts with the Innocent, a girl lured into the vampire coven, and the Vampire Queen, who has been played by Nicole Olson throughout the show’s run.
Sisson said over the years, the relationship between the Vampire Queen and King has developed.
“It was almost like the divorced couple, like mom and dad but they are divorced, and they don’t see eye-to-eye, while Nicole and I have a little bit more of that connection physically,” Sisson said.
Along with his aerial talents, Sisson uses his penetrating eyes to engage audiences as the Vampire King.
“People comment on how my eyes are how they connect with me,” Sisson said. “It’s an example of the second function, allowing the audience to connect emotionally to the character.”
Scorpius Dance Theatre’s Phoenix Cosplay Ball
8 p.m. Sunday, May 28
The Pressroom, 441 W. Madison St., Phoenix.
$18 presale and $25 at the door