James Whiteside's talent is impossible to ignore. A principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater since 2013, a year after he'd joined as a soloist following a successful decade at the Boston Ballet, the multitalented artist has played a plethora of major roles as well as begun exploring dance theater and built a choreography career. His work New American Romance will have its New York premiere next week during his company's fall season, marking the first time ABT will present his choreography. Naturally, he has four works to perform in as well, including Twyla Tharp's acclaimed Deuce Coupe and the world premiere of Gemma Bond's A Time There Was, so it's safe to say the next week-and-a-half will be a hectic but rewarding one for the accomplished dancer. But beyond this, we know what he did last summer, and it was nothing short of becoming a fashion muse.
For one afternoon this past June, Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts transformed from elegant art school to the imaginary sculpture garden of the great Monsieur Baun for designer Thom Browne’s Spring 2020 menswear show. Browne transported his audience to 1772, imagining the one night a year that Monsieur Baun breaks his reclusion and allows guests into his garden to marvel at his art. Whiteside, portraying Baun, entertained Browne’s guests with a dazzling self-choreographed performance, all while sporting an 18th-century French-inspired seersucker tutu and matching sportscoat. Browne’s sport-infused line also had Whiteside in a red, white, and blue sweatband with lips painted to match, juxtaposed against a powdered face that would have left even Marie Antoinette (who turned out to be an inspiration for the designer's women's collection this September) feeling jealous.
For Whiteside, an admitted self-critic, understanding Monsieur Baun came easily. As the story Browne developed goes, Baun is elated once his guests finally leave and he’s left alone with his work. “As a ballet dancer, I have my private work and then others see the result of that work in a fleeting moment on stage,” says Whiteside. “The storyline felt very close to my heart. I wanted to convey the pride but also the feeling of relief afterward. When [a performance] is over, you feel this sense of satisfaction—of relief. You’re sad it’s over. You’re happy it’s over. It’s confusing. It’s your own private moment.”
Whiteside was able to channel his understanding of Baun into choreography and turn the catwalk, normally reserved for staunch stoicism, into a stage of vibrant expression. “I felt free to express myself as an individual within the character, and almost a responsibility to do so,” Whiteside explains. “Otherwise, it would have been a distraction.” Instead, Whiteside aimed to be the cherry on top of Browne’s creative sundae.
This desire likely stems from the fact that Whiteside is a perfectionist. “I don’t like to do anything half-assed,” he tells me. His journey to his current position at the American Ballet Theater exemplifies this. Though the artist has been dancing since childhood (he started with jazz and tap), he didn’t move into ballet until he was a teenager, at the urging of his instructors who sensed he had potential. However, it wasn’t until a massive disappointment befell him that he realized ballet was his life’s passion. At the age of 15, he received a letter from the American Ballet Theater’s school, which he had been attending on scholarship, informing him that his scholarship had been rescinded due to his perceived lack of progress. Without the scholarship, his family couldn’t afford his tuition. The news devastated him. At that moment, he decided to attend a different ballet school, practicing his craft almost every day for the following year. By the age of 17, Whiteside was dancing ballet professionally. Whiteside would return to the American Ballet Theater in 2012 as a soloist and would be named a principal dancer the following year.
Whiteside credits ballet with teaching him the discipline he’s needed for his accomplishments, which, to be fair, are numerous. “Whether it be doing my taxes or coming up with the concept for a performance or an entrepreneurial idea, the grind of ballet has given me an incredible perspective on work ethic. It is unmatched in my eye,” he says.
Beyond ballet, Whiteside choreographs and performs experimental dance theater shows, writes, records, and produces his own music under the name JbDubs, hosts a podcast on which he discusses the contemporary world of ballet, and performs as a drag queen under the name Ühu Betch with his group, the Dairy Queens. Up next, the multi-hyphenate hopes to write a book of essays documenting his life as a dancer and artist. “Think David Sedaris meets Roald Dahl,” he says.
The truth is that Whiteside is an artist deep within his soul. His driving force is his utterly insatiable curiosity. “I have this curious, artistic heart,” he tells me. “I want to try as many things as possible, and it doesn’t necessarily matter to me if I’m even good at them. I’m just not afraid to fail. I think it all stems from this unwarranted confidence I have.” Based on his list of accomplishments, we would disagree. His confidence is very well-warranted.