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

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Time Out New York: Whose part do you have?
James Whiteside:
I have Clark Tippet’s part, and I think my partner is Polina Semionova. 

Time Out New York: Could you talk about The Tempest, the new Alexei Ratmansky ballet that you’ve just started rehearsing?
James Whiteside:
My character is Caliban, who is the slave monster of Prospero, and I obviously am harboring some animosity toward Prospero, because I am under his control and he tortures me and makes me do all this labor. We’ve only been working on it for a week, but in the choreography so far I feel there’s a lot of room to bring some depth as far as showing my relationship to Prospero and Miranda, who is Prospero’s daughter. The dancing is very low to the ground and honestly it reminds me a bit of an Igor-esque character—like the lab assistant. It’s cool. I like it.
Time Out New York: What has he been talking about in the studio?
James Whiteside:
He’s been trying to explain the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. It’s very physical. It’s almost violent, and that sort of shows the situation that Caliban is in.

Time Out New York: You performed the principal part in last season’s Chamber Symphony, also by Ratmansky. Could you talk about that process?
James Whiteside:
That’s the first piece that was created on me here. Between David and me, we created that role. David was coming back from an injury for a lot of the choreographic process, so Alexei really worked with me a lot on creating the ballet. I absolutely love working with choreographers. To have such a rich idea was so thrilling. It’s such a dark piece. You can play the hero all day—the prince here, the prince there, but it’s very rare that you get to be so tragic for so long. And then have these strange background hints of innocence and goofiness and this naive, boyish charm in places when you first experience a woman. There were all of these rich themes in such a short time. It was really fulfilling.

Time Out New York: You never made it sentimental.
James Whiteside:
You just can’t play the violin the whole ballet. [Laughs] My thing is you have to make people want to like you, even if you’re a villain. You want to be charming, for this ballet, in a relatable way. You have this great artist, Shostakovich. This is his life, this is what he went through, but perhaps he felt this way, and that’s why people enjoy ballet. Not just for a cool step. It’s so you can really feel something and relate. But that was a highlight for me. I really look forward to The Tempest.

Time Out New York: Did you work with Ratmansky in Boston?
James Whiteside:
No, never. He’s never gone there. The first time I met him was when he coached Nutcracker. I really enjoyed that. I look forward to keeping the relationship going.

Time Out New York: Can you describe what he’s like in the studio?
James Whiteside:
He’s very quiet, and he works so hard, oh my gosh, and he makes you work really hard. But it’s never a resentful—he’s killing us. You’re always working toward something; you’re never just working for busy work, which a lot of people do. He gives you vivid explanations of where he’s coming from, and then he’ll do the whole thing. You’ll see that’s what he wants there; this is the music he wants here, and then you find yourself in that. You’ll say, “I like this music—can I try it here?” If he’s happy with that, he’s like, “I like that.” He’ll say do it with the arm on da-da-da.… There will be times when he said, “I like David’s musicality there—do that.” Or “I like James’s musicality there, do that” or “I like Calvin’s musicality there.” [Calvin Royal III was featured in the third cast of the ballet.] He doesn’t just make it on one person and stop it. We’re fulfilling his intentions, but he allows us to be our own dancers.

Time Out New York: You say that you have a short attention span, but when you dance, you’re so focused—do you feel that?  
James Whiteside:
Ballet has been my life exception. Everything about my life, from my childhood to now, is nothing like ballet. It has no order, it’s not at all like the discipline and focus that ballet requires, and when I have a role that requires this intensity, it’s like an escape from everything else. If I can immerse myself into a role by focusing my attention on becoming this person, then I can run away.

Time Out New York: Are you still making music?
James Whiteside:
Yes!

Time Out New York: I love your videos.
James Whiteside:
Thank you. I have so much fun with that. As if I don’t have enough creativity in my life! I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just doing something for the pure enjoyment and creativity of it. I love making stuff, and I’ll never stop, whether it be with music or dances or a company or a production company—whatever. I’ll always have goals and projects.

Time Out New York: What is the meaning of your musical name: JbDubs?
James Whiteside:
J for James. B for Bruce, which is my middle name, and Dubs because my last name begins with a W. I started it in about 2005. My friends in Boston do my backup dancing. I love making up silly dances. It’s so different from ballet.

Time Out New York: You haven’t used ABT dancers as backups, have you?
James Whiteside:
I did. I have a new video coming out, and I’m not going to tell you who’s in it because they’ll kill me, but it’s a song called “Dirty Mouth,” and it’s about freedom of speech, essentially, and the freedom to basically do everything that you want, which is something I strongly believe in. I used two girls from ABT. It’ll be out in early winter. It’s quite risqué, I have to say; the video is inspired by hostage situations, so I’ve been taken hostage for speaking my mind and doing what I believe in. In the video, the girls are my kidnappers, and there are different scenarios in which I am tortured—all in a very humorous way. It all comes from humor; it’s not serious at all. There’s lots of dancing and different vignettes of different situations and comedy. It’s really fun. I hope it comes out all right.

Time Out New York: Where do you get your sense of humor?
James Whiteside:
It’s just been there always. I love to laugh and I love funny people. I just love to have a good time.

Time Out New York: What other types of music do you follow?
James Whiteside:
Oh everything. I think the only thing I really steer clear of is heavy metal. I just can’t get into it. But I’ve recently come to enjoy country music, which I’ve always thought was just the worst thing ever. I think it’s fun and silly, and I think it’s hilarious that they’re still just talking about their trucks in the songs. For decades now. It’s amazing. Cultures like that fascinate me.
American Ballet Theatre is at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Oct 30–Nov 10.

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