James Whiteside talks about his steady rise at American Ballet Theatre
James Whiteside talks about what it's like to be American Ballet Theatre's newest principal
Thu Oct 17 2013
Time Out New York: What was the first year like?
James Whiteside: Oh gosh, everyone was so mean. [Laughs] I made amazing friends, and I worked a lot and I still do this—don’t tell everybody else. I’m only kidding. You can. I follow people around that I really like their dancing and so I was 18 and 19 and I would follow Paul Thrussell around the room, because I worshipped his dancing. I would stand behind him at the barre or go find Larissa Ponomarenko in center. I would try and figure out what they were doing that wasn’t what I was doing. What made them look a certain way, as opposed to what made me look wrong. Visually, that helped me to improve, and eventually Mikko was like, He’s not too bad. He’s really eager. Throw him a bone. Jorma Elo came in and watched class to cast for a new ballet, he was like, “Mikko, what about this guy? He’s pretty green, but why not?” I was cast for Plan to B, which is one of Jorma’s most successful ballets. I was second cast to Joel Prouty, who is quite a virtuoso. Does loads of pirouettes, jumps really high, does fun tricks and is about this tall. [He holds his hand up to his shoulder.] I was like, Oh my God, I’m going to die. How am I going to do it? But it was great; Jorma pushed me to shut up and do it, and that really opened the doors for me. Mikko and choreographers took a chance on me. Like in any company, the more you do, the more you’re able to let go and not be afraid.
Time Out New York: Did you get to dance often?
James Whiteside: There was a time in Boston where I could literally do four ballets in a night, and while I bitched about it, it was magic. You feel so worthwhile and loved in the art form when you’re being used that much. It’s phenomenal.
Time Out New York: Did you notice that you were improving?
James Whiteside: Yes. And even if it’s not a technical improvement, you feel like you’re becoming an artist, and you have instincts and ideas; until you’re onstage making the art happen, you don’t really understand it. There are loads of choreographers in the world who just can’t afford a theater to show their work, and that’s sort of what a young dancer is like. If you’re not allowed to dance, how are you supposed to show that you can? There’s only so much you can do in class.
Time Out New York: You have been in a few ballets by Jorma Elo. What has that relationship been like? How did it shape you as a dancer?
James Whiteside: I have a lot of background in jazz and contemporary and tap, so that made it easier for me to learn his steps, because they’re very fast—good God. And just different and weird and quirky.
Time Out New York: Was tap particularly good for that in terms of understanding different rhythms?
James Whiteside: Oh for sure. And I only did it through high school, but I feel tap never leaves you. Sure, it gets kind of soft, but I still remember everything. Whereas I feel if I stopped ballet for ten years, it would be really sad. [Laughs] Jorma is fun to work with; he’s really quiet, and he’ll sort of skitter around for a minute and then be like, “Oh, good, go.” And you’re like, “What?” So you do a variation on a theme and hope he likes it. It’s very collaborative. It’s nice.
Time Out New York: What else did you get to work on that you loved?
James Whiteside: Loads of Balanchine. Oh my gosh, I loved that. Mikko was always bringing loads of Balanchine in. Ballo della Regina was one of the first principal roles that I ever did. Merrill Ashley came and coached, and she was phenomenal. I love her. She came [to ABT] and did Symphony in C. We also did Theme [and Variations]. We did Symphony in Three Movements, which is one of my favorite Balanchine ballets, and La Valse. Prodigal [Son], which I didn’t do personally. Rubies. I would love to do that again.
Time Out New York: What was your relationship like with Mikko?
James Whiteside: I thought we understood each other really well, and he was instrumental in my growth. He wasn’t afraid to give me opportunities, and there were a few [dancers] in Boston that he really cultivated. Myself, Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Jeffrey Cirio, Misa Kuranaga; it’s bad to say, but he had a group of favorites, and he really put them in everything. There were times when we would be dying, but it was fun.
Time Out New York: So you’re in Boston. Did it feel like home?
James Whiteside: Yeah. I feel like home is where the people I love are, and I have people that I really love in Boston who have become my family and who I talk to daily. So that’s home for me. An apartment is just where I sleep. I’m making some new family here.
Time Out New York: You were in Boston Ballet for ten years though and that’s a long time.
James Whiteside: Yes. It felt like I was born there. It’s wild. But in a way it feels like a homecoming here in New York. I’ve always wanted to be here, and I grew up 45 minutes out of the city; I spent a lot of time here taking classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps, and I always knew that I’d be in New York some day for one reason or another.
Time Out New York: Was it difficult to leave Boston Ballet?
James Whiteside: It was very hard mainly because of the friends I had made and the experiences I shared with them. I knew I wanted to change my career atmosphere and that ABT had always been at the top of my list. When I was doing my last show and having to say goodbye to people, it was really hard. You don’t appreciate how much fun you’re having until you are away from it.
Time Out New York: What was your last show?
James Whiteside: I did the turning principal in Études. It’s the devil. It’s not like I could really just not concentrate. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve gotta do this part, bye!”
Time Out New York: How did you hear about a position here?
James Whiteside: I didn’t. I didn’t hear at all. Raymond Lukens has honestly been bugging me forever to come and take class [at ABT]. He said to me, “It’s time. I know you’re smack-dab in the middle of Nutcracker, but I don’t care—you’re coming.” I came on a Monday, which is our day off in Boston, and I took Rinat Imaev’s class in studio five. I had only heard of Victor [Barbee, ABT’s associate artistic director] before, but I didn’t know what he looked like. He sat at the front of the room the entire time, and I was like, I wonder if that guy is Victor? I was afraid to talk to people during class, so I just kept to myself. Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] popped in for maybe 15 minutes. After class, people were like, “Go talk to him, that’s Victor.” He said, “Come upstairs and in 15 minutes, we’ll talk to you,” and the class was phenomenal, by the way. It was really warm in the studio, it was just a nice atmosphere, and I had a nice class. I was like, This feels good. I could do this. I went to talk to Victor and Kevin and he said, “Yeah. I think this’ll work.” In a couple of weeks, I signed a contract and moved here. It was wild. I’m really impressed that they offered me something from so little. But I’m sure they see plenty of people to know what they’re looking for. I’m glad they took a chance on me.
Time Out New York: What were you dissatisfied about in Boston?
James Whiteside: Nothing. I was so happy in Boston. I just wanted new inspiration, motivation, new ballets—it was just an exploration of new things and that’s why I’m here. And to grab on to the dream I always had of being in ABT.
Time Out New York: It’s just so brave to make such a change. You were so settled.
James Whiteside: Oh very. I still own a place in Boston, and I could have easily retired there, but I knew that I wouldn’t be as fulfilled. I could come here and fail, and I would know that it’s not worth it and could go somewhere else or go back, or I could come here and thrive. Which I’m hoping will continue.