A profile of James Whiteside, one of American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancers, who is also notable for his activities as a DJ, video producer, drag queen, model, and Instagram star.
Good evening, and welcome to 'NYC-Arts.' I'm Paula Zahn at the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center.
Tonight, we'll meet one of American Ballet Theatre's principal dancers, James Whiteside.
Originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, Whiteside began studying ballet at the age of 9.
He started his professional career at Boston Ballet in 2003 before eventually moving to New York in 2012 to dance for ABT.
He was promoted to principal dancer in October of 2013 and has been widely praised for his powerful, energetic dancing.
But Whiteside is also notable for his activities outside of the ballet world as a deejay, video producer, drag queen, model, and Instagram star.
So, I was 9 years old when I started dancing.
I did jazz, ballet, tap, acrobatics at a local school in Fairfield, Connecticut, and I got into dancing because I had tried everything else -- you know, football, baseball, soccer.
And my mom one day threw me a phone book and said, you know, 'You have to pick something, you're driving me crazy, you hyperactive monster.
And so I found an ad for a dance studio in the phone book, and it was of a man holding a woman over his head with one hand, and it just looked awesome, and I said, 'I want to try that.' When I look back at the videos of when I was a kid, you can see pure joy in the videos, and I wouldn't replace that with anything.
My technique has evolved so much, but the energy is the exact same energy.
It's like the sort of, I don't know, just like spastic wildness, which sounds like a bad thing, but I think it's a good thing.
My first dance teachers brought me to see ABT, American Ballet Theatre, at the Met Opera when I was 12 years old.
I didn't even know what ballet could be at that point, but I really saw it that night, when I decided that's really what I wanted to do.
ABT was my first dream, and so I haven't stopped until I got here, and I now that I'm here, I'm still not stopping.
As a principal dancer, I dance a lot of princely roles, so Prince Sigfried from 'Swan Lake,' Prince Albrecht from 'Giselle.' I actually had never done the prince in 'Swan Lake' until I joined American Ballet Theatre.
So I worked really hard, and my first show here with ABT of 'Swan Lake' was with with principal ballerina Gillian Murphy, and she really showed me the ropes and made me comfortable with the ballet.
I've known about Gillian's prowess for 1 million years.
She's the resident prima of American Ballet Theatre, and I'm so happy to be dancing with her.
I just adore her.
She's hilarious, also.
I feel like, in a story ballet, it's a lot about dialog, about listening to what the other person is saying through their movement and through their, you know, physical storytelling.
And I feel like the older I get and the more I dance with these ballerinas, the more solid and readable our dialog is.
I have a sort of little backstory that I tell myself.
I feel like the the prince in 'Swan Lake' has a little secret.
He's lonely, and in my mind, it reminds me of how I felt as a teenager being afraid to come out of the closet as a gay man.
When I am doing the first act and everyone's celebrating me and it's my birthday and I'm the prince, and how could I not be just overjoyed?
I think back to that feeling I had of isolation, even though I had absolutely no reason to put myself through that other than fear of perception.
I try to give that feeling through body language.
Instead of always being the proud prince, to show vulnerability and insecurity.
I think 'Fancy Free' is a storytelling work of genius.
You've got such a sense of atmosphere from this ballet, which is really hard to do.
So I've been doing 'Fancy Free' for a really long time, I think since I was maybe 21.
I've been the same part -- third sailor.
My character specifically has this haughty sass, which I really love.
I sort of treat it like The Fonz.
I'm curious to see how it holds up in, like, in societal change.
Right now, I feel like we're right on the brink of it being almost inappropriate.
However, that being said, I love dancing this ballet.
It is so much fun.
The music is unbelievable.
Choreography is so charming and strange and wonderful and jazzy.
♪♪ Choreography, for me, has always been something that I've enjoyed just from a very natural place.
Like, I would take my dad's records and put them on my Fisher-Price turntable and make up dances in my bedroom.
At my jazz studio in Connecticut, they saw that I like to make things and they would let me make up dances for competitions.
They really nourished my creative needs.
When I joined Boston Ballet, I kept making things.
I kept creating.
And now here I am at ABT, and I'm still showing interest and being given opportunities that I am so grateful for.
I made a piece last fall.
It was my first commission with American Ballet Theatre which premiered in Vail.
I made 'New American Romance' as a nod to the classicism of romantic ballets.
But I also wanted to inject a little bit of my personality and my perception on romance into it, which is limitless, really.
It was sort of my appreciation for what romance could be, for all the possibilities.
♪♪ So, my new ballet, called 'City of Women,' is about the generational sharing of knowledge from ballerina to ballerina.
♪♪ I know them all so well.
I wanted to make a dance for the ballerinas that would showcase their individual gifts and also represent, you know, the wisdom of Gillian, the sort of brazenness of Katherine, and the courageous dancing of Isabella.
I know their strengths and I know their personalities, not just their strengths.
So I wanted to showcase that ♪♪ ♪ [ Applause ] I created JbDubs in 2005.
He is a pop musician sort of rapper thing.
I produce, perform, write all the music, as well as choreograph the music videos.
♪ I'm Mr. 'Who is this Queen' since I was 17 ♪ Don't matter if I'm Prince Sigfried ♪ Or JB in them red high heels ♪ I have been witness to a lot of discrimination and homophobia in ballet, and also, I have seen a lot of sexual misconduct allegations sort of shake up the ballet world.
So all of these things happened at once, and my brain exploded.
And my instinct was to write.
So I wrote a song called 'WTF,' and it's exactly like it sounds.
And it wasn't so much pointing fingers at people as sort of just expressing my exasperation and the incredulity of the situation.
♪ What the what happened to the city ♪ What the what happened to the states ♪ What the what happened to creativity ♪ Whoo, what a, what a, what a waste ♪ The reason I wanted to dance en pointe in the music video is to further hammer home the point that we as dancers should not be forced to be gendered or put in a box.
I want to encourage as many people to dance en pointe as they want to.
♪ Suzanne, Gelsey, Wendy ♪ Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky ♪ Suzanne, Gelsey, Wendy ♪ Martha and Tallchief And while I am a cisgendered male, I want to be free to dance in whatever I want.
I am really hoping the future of ballet remains very classical.
I want the definition of classical to evolve.
I think, socially, ballet has to adapt, and I absolutely want to be one of the people leading the charge on the creation of more representation in classical ballet.
I have huge respect for the classics, but that doesn't mean new stories can't be told.
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