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

James Whiteside of American Ballet Theatre

James Whiteside of American Ballet Theatre Photograph: Marty Sohl

When American Ballet Theatre returns to the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) for its fall season (Oct 30–Nov 10), it does so with a new principal: James Whiteside. The dancer—who will perform in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, Twyla Tharp's Bach Partita and Alexei Ratmansky's new The Tempest—talked about his journey and upcoming roles.

When James Whiteside was promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre earlier this month, he caught a case of the giggles. “I obviously couldn’t contain myself,” he says. Formerly of Boston Ballet, Whiteside has taken ABT by storm; last season, he juggled Balanchine, a slew of story ballets and Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony. For the company’s current run, he’ll perform Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita and Ratmansky’s new The Tempest. He spoke about what it took to get him to the top.

Time Out New York: Your decision to start dancing is unconventional. What happened?
James Whiteside:
I had tried a million different activities, and I was rubbish at everything, but I was very hyper. My mom was fed up with me; she had five kids, so she was pretty over it by the time I came around. She threw me the phone book and said, “Find something to do. You’re irritating.” [Laughs] I saw a photo of a man pressing a woman over his head with one hand and I said, “That looks cool. I don’t know what that is, but sign me up.” My mom was like, “That’s a dance studio.” I said, “Sure, why not?” I was nine; I didn’t care. I didn’t know all the things about how ballet, jazz and tap weren’t cool.
Time Out New York: Right. There was no social stigma at nine.
James Whiteside:
No, and I loved Broadway musicals. I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, so I came to the city a lot just because it’s so close.
Time Out New York: What shows did you see?
James Whiteside:
Actually, the first show I saw may have been Cats, and I did not like it at all. I love cats, but I hated the show. I expected more of a plot I guess. I didn’t know what Broadway was; I had seen West Side Story. I had memorized every song, and West Side Story was what I thought Broadway should be. Then I saw The Lion King, and I was like, Oh my gosh, this is amazing. I saw Contact, and I loved that. There was a lot of dancing; I’m sure a lot of it was lost on me because I was so young, but I knew I liked the movement. That’s Susan Stroman, right?
Time Out New York: Exactly. And I’ll bet the shorter sections were good for you to see as a kid.
James Whiteside:
Yes. My attention span, to this day, is like, what, what, twirl! You know? So it was fantastic. I loved that. Actually, when I started dancing, my teachers would bring me to the ABT gala every year. I didn’t do that much ballet when I started; they were like, “You should do ballet, because this is awesome.”
Time Out New York: Who were your teachers?
James Whiteside:
Angela D’Valda and Steve Sirico. They have mainly a competition school in Fairfield, Connecticut. Jazz, tap, ballet, acrobatics, singing—everything. And they had a youth company so we would tour and do performances and competitions. It was so fantastic for all of us; a lot of us are living in New York dancing now.
Time Out New York: Is it great experience to learn how to perform at a young age?
James Whiteside:
Oh yeah. Just the discipline alone, regardless of activity and artistry and whatnot. It’s good for kids. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: What did you compete in?
James Whiteside:
I competed in Starpower, Dance Educators of America, StarQuest. I did Youth America Grand Prix when I was young. I competed in jazz and ballet; mainly I did jazz.
Time Out New York: Do you remember a number you did?
James Whiteside:
Oh, I remember all of them! One of the first ones I did was a number called Kids Get Hyped, and there were maybe six of us. It was so fast, and we were all 10 years old doing insane stuff—fouettés and crazy jumps that kids don’t know are hard, so they just do them. We did a Michael Jackson medley called In the Mix. I loved that one. We did lyrical numbers. One was called Infinity; it was pretty. And we did a lot of partner work. The photo that I saw in the phone book was of my teachers, and they had an adagio act that traveled around the world. So their main thing, in all of their choreography, was insane partner work, and it would be 12-year-olds throwing these girls around. It’s really different than ballet partnering, but it certainly has played a hand…
Time Out New York: Because you learned about weight and momentum?
James Whiteside:
Exactly. A lot of the stuff, especially in jazz and in contemporary partnering, is very off balance. You need to have a really solid idea of where your partner’s weight is.
Time Out New York: When did you get into ballet?
James Whiteside:
They had been trying to push me into ballet for a long time, and I, like any other child, was resistant because I did jazz and tap and thought those were more fun. They were at the time. I thought that I was good enough at it, and then they made me audition for the ABT summer program, and I got in—I think it was 2000 and 2001. I was in the third-lowest level or something, and was like, Wow, I’m really not very good at this. I should probably get myself together here and make this happen. So I kept working on my ballet and went back to my school in Connecticut and did another summer at American Ballet Theatre, and was in the same level for the second year in a row. I was a little disheartened. When I went back to Connecticut, I got a letter from ABT; I had received full scholarships for both of my [previous] years. It said, “You know, we like you, but we can’t offer you another scholarship.” I guess they weren’t seeing the improvement they wanted. I was devastated, because ABT was my dream company. I had this grand plan when I was a child; I came up with it when I was about 12: I’m going to be in a ballet company, and I’m going to really do it and then I’m going to go on Broadway once I’m done with ballet, and it’s going to be all fun and good. When this happened, I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to do ballet. I was talking to my friends and one of them had just gone away to a ballet boarding school: Virginia School of the Arts. I was like, Maybe I should do that to try and make my ballet better. I got in, and went there for a year and really just buckled down on my ballet. We did pretty much all ballet. 
Time Out New York: What was the focus?
James Whiteside:
It was Petrus Bosman, who was a principal at the Royal. It was very, very English, and it was perfect for me. One of my teachers in Connecticut was English, too. So I had Petrus Bosman and David Keener, and they understood that I wanted this and was worth spending time on. They really just beat me into shape, and it was phenomenal. That summer, I got into the Boston Ballet summer program. They had offered apprentice contracts to two other people; Raymond Lukens, who was going to be the director of the apprentice company, Boston Ballet II, was old friends with my teachers in Connecticut. [My career is] this amazing web of people really believing in me. Franco [De Vita, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre] used to guest-teach at my old school once a week. I knew Kirk Peterson. I was obsessed with ABT, so I was like, Oh gosh, this is so sad that this isn’t happening.
Time Out New York: Why did you audition in Boston? You didn’t think about coming back here?
James Whiteside:
No. I didn’t think it was a possibility. I knew I wasn’t very good at ballet. My eyes had been opened, and it really wasn’t an option. That said, I had friends who had gone to the Boston program from VSA. They said, “We really liked it, and you can’t go back to ABT.” I didn’t want to go to SAB [School of American Ballet] for some reason, because I had had no friends who had gone there, and that’s what kids care about. That’s why I went to Boston. I loved it. It was a phenomenal summer program, and I really felt like I improved and at the end, they offered me an apprentice contract with Boston Ballet II. I did a year there, still trying to figure out how to do ballet and at the end of the year, they offered me another BB II contract for a second year. Then, maybe a week before we started back, they called and said, “One of our dancers couldn’t get his visa. Do you want to be in the corps?” I was running around on the ceiling. I was so excited. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Who was the director?
James Whiteside:
It was Mikko Nissinen. I was one of his first hires. We were there pretty much the same amount of time.

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