“I choose to live my life with a certain fearless vitality...”
-- James Whiteside, Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre
I find the ballet to be a lot like life when it comes to men – the bad boys always stand out.
To be clear, in using the term ‘bad’, I mean no disrespect to the wildly creative artists to whom I attach the term here. I rather use it to describe the fiery, matchless ability of those rare few performers whose talent is so explosive that it can’t be put into a box – those true artistes whose mastery of an art form is so advanced that it can scarcely be harnessed or contained by one genre, but instead must constantly be allowed to spill over into new arenas in order to achieve its fullest expression.
Think Nureyev at the height of his career breaking with tradition to perform both classical ballet and modern dance or Baryshnikov dancing his way to an Academy Award nomination in The Turning Point, the first of his many acting roles on the big screen. More contemporarily, think of genre-busting former Royal Ballet star Sergei Polunin, who is fast becoming a Hollywood ‘It’ boy co-starring and working alongside some of Tinseltown’s biggest names like Ralph Fiennes and box-office megastar Jennifer Lawrence. Now add to this exclusive clique of auteurs, the always daring, never boring, James Whiteside (aka pop-dance artist JbDubs, aka Ühu Betch of the drag posse known as The Dairy Queens).
Not fully able to express the breadth of his creativity within the realm of his widely lauded, four-year run as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, which just recently closed its current season at the Metropolitan Opera House, Whiteside has spread his talents far and wide, venturing into music and video production and becoming something of a YouTube sensation under the alias JbDubs, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of his art in almost every direction imaginable. This week, the chameleon-like Mr. Whiteside launches an eclectic, globetrotting series of summer performances that promise to reveal more about the range of his talents than the world has ever seen before…and he couldn’t be more excited.
“My summer has a wide range of dance styles, so throughout the course of the summer I think people are actually going to learn a lot about the real range of things that I can do… from hip-hop to ballet to contemporary ballet and jazz,” Whiteside explains when asked what people can expect to see on his tour which will make stops in Los Angeles, Vail, and Tokyo over the course of the summer. “Normally my summers consist of a lot of gigs essentially,” he continues. “But this summer is a little bit different in that I have programmed a lot of it myself. So, I’m doing a lot of stuff that I really want to do and that I’m looking forward to doing as well as stuff that I’ve done in the past and really loved and want to revisit.”
Among the performances to which Whiteside is most looking forward is one that is set to debut at the Fire Island Dance Festival on July 15 and 16. It is a new work by musical theater choreographer Al Blackstone that promises to showcase a sexy, flirty side of the dancer entitled, “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?”.
“The premise of the piece is that I am pining after this guy and these other four guys are pining after me,” Whiteside offers as something of a teaser preview of the performance. “[But] I don’t want to give it away because there’s a bit of a twist – there are some interesting things that go down in the dance. It’s great. It’s just Prince and a piano and it’s a great, sexy, jazz piece.”
Another highlight of Whiteside’s summer calendar will be the premiere of his new production company “James Whiteside Presents” at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, MA. Along with 5 Dances, a collection of works in varied styles that he has created over the years, Whiteside will also treat the Jacob’s Pillow crowd to a performance by his sassy, uninhibited pop alter ego JbDubs, whose YouTube hit “I Hate My Job” has scored 4 million plus views. “One of the numbers that I’m going be doing [for my Jacob’s Pillow performance] is to a song that I wrote called “Wallflower”,” says Whiteside who admits to being the antithesis of the person about whom he wrote the song. “It’s basically about not being a wallflower and just getting on the dancefloor and shakin’ it! I’ve got a music video for that song with ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary [and] we’ll be doing a live version of that.”
From there Whiteside will head back to New York for two performances in the world premiere of Impressions, part of an evening with Gemma Bond at the Joyce Theatre, which will be directly followed by a 3-day dance series at The Music Center, in Los Angeles, where James will dance the pas de deux from both Romeo and Juliet and Rubies with American Ballet Theater principal Isabella Boylston and Lauren Cuthbertson, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London. And as if that weren’t hectic enough, to round out the summer, Whiteside will take the stage at the Vail Dance Festival, August 4 and 5, and Ballet Sun Valley in Idaho, August 22 and 24 under the direction of Isabella Boylston where he will reprise the Rubies pas de deux with Boylston, while also mounting his own You Rascal You. Finally, the seemingly inexhaustible danseur will end his extensive calendar of appearances in Tokyo where he will both dance in and choreograph a specially arranged Beauty and the Beast excerpt, “Tale as Old as Time” for Tokyo Disney’s release of Beauty and the Beast.
At this point in the interview, I can’t help but ask Whiteside not only how he keeps all the performances in his schedule straight in his own mind but also how he does it all at such a break-neck pace and with what appears to be such good humor. “I choose to live my life with a certain fearless vitality that I think more people should try,” the performer says patly without missing a beat. “If you’re so serious all the time, you forget to enjoy your life and to enjoy the people around you and the beauty that is existent. I take what I do very seriously…[and]…it is out of joy and love and experience that I am pushing forward.”
So does “fearless vitality” imply that unlike most of us humans, James Whiteside is without fear of anything? And, if so, has he always been so fearless?
“[No]. I’m not without self-doubt,” he quickly offers in reply to my facetiously posed query. “I have plenty of insecurities just like anybody else. It’s just that it’s important to me to keep pushing forward and to be proud of my struggle.”
“But as far as fearlessness goes, it wasn’t so much a choice [for me] as it was [something] that was already there,” Whiteside adds after pausing for a moment to reflect. “I do recall a time when the PR Manager for the Boston Ballet, which was my first ballet company, came to me with a story that the local gay paper wanted to do on me. I was very young and she said, ‘You know, this is going to be in print and online pretty much forever, so are you sure you want to come out? I just need to ask you, because I know it’s your first interview like this.’
I was so confused that she would even ask. I understand that she was just trying to explain the consequences of what we were doing and that people might be put off by my blatant sexuality, but for me it wasn’t even an option. From a young age…hiding myself or being apologetic for my existence…wasn’t something that really interested me. That got me into a lot of trouble when I was a teenager. I was very opinionated and outspoken and unapologetic. It’s kind of funny, when you’re young, you’re berated for being outspoken but then you get to be a certain age and it gets to be celebrated.”
With no signs of holding back or in any way reigning in his aspirations, expect to see even more of Whiteside and his fearless vitality on the horizon. “In the future, there are so many things I’d like to do,” he tells me in a manner that suggests he’s holding something back…something big that his mind has already leapt to but he’s not quite ready to put into words. That stumbling block aside, he is still able to list some of the highlights on his personal bucket list. “One of these days, I’d like to be on Broadway,” he says clearly ticking through a well-established checklist. “I’d like to go to school for music production. I’d like to choreograph commercially for theatre and the ballet. I’ve got my irons in various fires and I don’t see myself retracting them anytime soon.”
What good news for us. Dance on Mr. Whiteside. Dance on.
Follow James Whiteside and check out his latest projects and tour dates at www.jameswhiteside.org.