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

Time Out New York: But why did you want to take that risk? What started it? Maybe it was gradual.
James Whiteside:
No. I had talked to Mikko for maybe three years before I actually left, and I said, “I want to explore different places—maybe ABT, maybe City Ballet, maybe San Francisco, maybe the Royal. I want to try maybe a bigger company to see how I fare, and I want to be around different dancers.” That’s really the way I learn—being inspired by other dancers and other artists. I think that’s the reason I decided to make the change. I wanted new experiences. I didn’t want to be the same dancer for another ten years.

Time Out New York: Did he understand that?
James Whiteside:
Yeah. When I visit friends, I always see him. It’s very civil. We obviously wish the best for each other and we spent a lot of time in the studio together, and there are no hard feelings at all, at least I don’t think so. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: You said that you follow dancers around. Who do you follow here?
James Whiteside:
I follow Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg], Cory [Stearns]. Roberto [Bolle]. Those are my favorites. And Herman [Cornejo], of course. We’re very different dancers, but I appreciate his style. I like his acting.

Time Out New York: What kinds of dances were appealing to you at ABT that you didn’t have in Boston?
James Whiteside:
Well, just the frequency. I want to do Sleeping Beauty into Swan Lake into Onegin into Sylvia into whatever else in a couple of months. It’s absolutely insane and amazing, and I wanted to do that. The thing is, we rehearse too much in Boston, and while it was good for making it perfect—or as close as you can get—I want to be onstage more. That’s why I dance. It’s the most fun part easily about dancing—to be onstage. And the whole experience—getting ready, putting your costume on, going out for drinks after. Not just the actual onstage part. The whole thing is so phenomenal. 

Time Out New York: What were your first performances here?
James Whiteside:
For the Met, we did Symphony in C, and I did the pas de deux from Onegin with Diana [Vishneva]. Gosh, I was terrified! Terrified. But I deal quite well with stressful situations. I sort of let it roll, and it was fun and it went well, so I was happy. Everyone was really supportive, which I really didn’t think they were going to be. When I thought about coming here, I was like, Wow, people are going to really be unhappy that I’m here. And while they may have been, they did a really good job of hiding their frustration and being really kind to me, and I will forever be appreciative of that, because it could have been really uncomfortable. So that said, I was very nervous. I thought to myself, This has to not suck. In order for things to keep coming my way, this has to be at a certain level.

Time Out New York: It was a good season.
James Whiteside:
I couldn’t have asked for more opportunities, really. There were times when I thought my brain was going to explode, but it was so worth it. It was so fulfilling and inspiring.

Time Out New York: How did you condition your mind and body to get through it? Was that your most intense performing situation you’d been in?
James Whiteside:
As far as turnover goes. There were times when I actually danced more in Boston night to night, but never times where I had to learn a ballet, rehearse it, make it work well enough to put onstage in a week—that was something I’d never experienced before. What I did was I would get the DVD—I don’t know if this is allowed, but I did it anyway. It was the only way I could have gotten through the season. I would rip it onto my computer and put it on my iPhone and learn the ballet. Everybody knew it except me; they taught me things, and Kevin is incredible with details and fine-tuning and making sure you know your intention and the story and all that good stuff that coaching’s for, but as far as getting the steps into my brain and out of my body, I really had to do my homework.

Time Out New York: What stood out for you?
James Whiteside:
I loved Symphony in C. I absolutely loved Romeo and Juliet. I had never done that version before, and it’s a masterpiece. There are no words to describe the way I feel in performances of Romeo and Juliet. I did the [John] Cranko version before and now the [Kenneth] MacMillan, and I get the same sort of spent exhaustion and happiness mixed with about 5,000 emotions. So that’s always going to be one of my favorite ballets. I loved doing von Rothbart in Swan Lake. That’s so ridiculous and fun. And doing Swan Lake with Gil was just a blast.

Time Out New York: Did you know Gillian Murphy before you came here? 
James Whiteside:
No. I didn’t know anybody before! I knew David because we were in the summer program together. I knew Simone [Messmer]. I knew Blaine [Hoven]. We were really good friends in the summer program; we were like a trio of delinquents. In Spain, I was cast to do Basilio with Bella [Isabella Boylston]. I was like, I can’t believe they’re giving this to me. I’ve been here approximately five days. We’re on our way to Barcelona; we’re doing Don Q and I don’t remember who it was—maybe Miki [Shintani, rehearsal coordinator] came up to me at the gate and says,  “So, we’re going to need you to do a show with Paloma [Herrera].” I mean, Paloma is legendary. I’ve never met her. I had gone to heaven, because that’s so brilliant, but I was terrified, because I was worried that I wasn’t going to be up to standards. We did maybe a half an hour rehearsal and went through first-act pas de deux, and it was fine. We did a show, and it was a blast and then we went on to dance so many things together. You want to be good for your first time. You want to be good all the time, but you want to make a good impression, because nobody forgets that. I really enjoyed getting to know the different women—from Paloma to Gil to Veronika [Part] to Hee [Seo]. It’s been nice to see what works with all of them; they all have requests for their bodies about how they like to be partnered. It’s really interesting. I think, File that away.

Time Out New York: What ABT dancer can you be the freest with as a partner?
James Whiteside:
I’d say Gillian. We just get along really well, and we have similar ideas when it comes to role portrayal. When I look at her, and I’m making a moment or a story, it’s so easy—I see behind just eyes, behind some lashes. I’m doing Theme with her on opening night. 

Time Out New York: That’s great—she’s wonderful in that ballet. When did you first dance Theme?
James Whiteside:
The first time was in 2010, and I danced with Misa Kuranaga, who is about yea high, so I was doing all the partnering at hip level. Sometimes it’s hard when the woman is really short, because you have to get low to do any lifting. So Gillian is a bit more appropriately matched. Merrill came and coached us. It was so great. I adore this ballet. I love doing Balanchine and Robbins.

Time Out New York: Why do you love dancing Balanchine and this in particular?
James Whiteside:
I always have fun with them. And they’re generally just dances, and I like to do dances. [Laughs] Kevin keeps telling us that Theme is Sleeping Beauty’s niece, and it has that modern flair, but it’s got this gorgeous, luscious classicism about it.

Time Out New York: How do you play with the music? 
James Whiteside:
I like to find the syncopation. There are times when it’s very choreographed and some of the steps remind me of tap dancing, especially the intro theme. It’s got this soft-shoe thing going, and I like to find places to stretch out the leg for a little bit longer than one should and then catch up. Just messing around, having a good time. There are things that come naturally again and again, and there are times when I’m like, let’s just play with this here and see if I like it. If I don’t, I won’t do it again. I feel like Gil is the same way. She definitely likes to mess around and play and have fun with her steps. I don’t want to do it the same forever. I want to play. It’s more fun for everybody involved.

Time Out New York: Have you worked with Twyla Tharp?
James Whiteside:
Not yet. I’ve never worked with her. I’ve only done [In the] Upper Room before. I think I’m going to die at the end of it, but it’s SO fun. I’m doing [Tharp’s] Bach Partita. Susan Jones is teaching it. Susan knows everything, it’s incredible. There are times when I’m like, What would they do without Susan? We’re all starting from square one, because no one has done it before. It’s not like I have to scramble to learn a ballet that everyone’s done for 35 years.

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