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How American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside is revolutionizing dance

From playing Prince Charming to performing as drag artist Ühu Betch, Whiteside finds new audiences by pushing boundaries.

How American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside is revolutionizing dance
[Photo: Erik Tanner]
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American Ballet Theatre principal dancer James Whiteside has built a career playing romantic leads onstage, from Romeo to Swan Lake’s Prince Siegfried. Offstage, he creates experimental music, choreography, and more through bombastic online alter egos, such as a singer named JbDubs, drag artist Ühu Betch, and a turkey-baster-wielding journalist called Shannon Bobannon (who “fires news like a cannon”). As theaters went dark during the pandemic, the New York–based Whiteside began putting out a flood of original content on Instagram and YouTube: going behind the scenes of his workouts and rehearsals, offering live dance classes, creating comedic skits, and debuting inventive music videos. In the process, he has demystified the rarified world of ballet. “People think ballet is inaccessible or overly haughty,” he says. “I take pride in bringing it to a very large audience.” Here’s how he’s embraced discipline while subverting expectations.

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[Photo: Erik Tanner]

Don’t be defined by rejection

When Whiteside took up dance in middle school, he focused on modern and tap. “I really didn’t like ballet, but my teachers saw I had potential.” They urged him to attend an ABT summer program and, later, the Virginia School of the Arts, where he was a boarder, and his passion for the art was ignited. (“It was like Hogwarts for ballet.”) But after he joined the Boston Ballet, and then ABT, he received plenty of criticism. “Rejection goes hand in hand with this career. Disappointment is a daily occurrence,” he says. He has thrived in this environment by developing a thick skin. “There’s a slight coldness to my approach [to work] because [I know] art is subjective. You have to be in favor with choreographers, coaches, bosses, and they won’t all like you,” he explains. The key is to find control where you can: “You just have to see every little opportunity you’re given and deliver.” Whiteside has taken further command of his career by pursuing choreography. His first piece, New American Romance, debuted at the 2019 Vail Dance Festival, and was later performed by ABT at Lincoln Center as part of the company’s fall season. His second piece will premiere this May at one of ABT’s outdoor performances in Tivoli, New York.

In Character: The many identities of James Whiteside

Find your creative outlets

Though he calls ballet “the great love” of his life, Whiteside finds inspiration in other arenas as well, whether it’s drag, pop music, or publishing. He taught himself how to use music-making software while he was with the Boston Ballet. Since then, he’s been writing, producing, and performing music under the moniker JbDubs. He drew attention in 2019 with a music video for his song “WTF?,” a commentary on homophobia, misogyny, and the #MeToo reckoning in ballet that quickly went viral. In the video, he leads an all-male troupe of ballet dancers through classical pointe choreography (typically reserved for women) mixed with elements of hip-hop and modern dance. “I like to confuse people and go from playing a very butch prince to a really feminine person,” he says. “I want to be able to create within all of those spaces.” He also recently wrote a memoir, Center Center, which comes out in August. (On the cover, he sports a silver sequined dress and Converse shoes.) He says this series of essays, which cover such personal milestones as coming out and getting into ABT, offers “an introspective look at the human experience [of ballet] and how it relates to expression and freedom.” The 36-year-old Whiteside sees these alternative creative outlets as “sowing the seeds” for his eventual retirement from dance. “If there’s anything I’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that I’m going to be okay when I retire.”

[Photo: Erik Tanner]

Pull back the curtain

While social media has become a lucrative side hustle for Whiteside (he’s racked up an impressive 318,000 Instagram followers, and worked with brands such as Club Monaco, Chanel, and Thom Browne), it’s all in the service of showcasing dance. During the pandemic, he teamed up with ABT principal dancer and frequent partner Isabella Boylston to host ballet classes, called “The Cindies,” on Instagram Live that raised money for the ABT Crisis Relief Fund. He also regularly shares rehearsal photos and videos of himself dancing in other styles, including tap and pole. (He’s particularly graceful in high heels.) “Dancing is not effortless,” he says. “I want to show people how much work is involved.” And while he aims to dispel myths about the art form onstage, he also wants to change things behind the scenes. “I’m a gay man, and I have never performed on a classical ballet stage with a man in a romantic scene. I’d like to give people the space to live their truth within characters in classical ballet.” This year has been tough on the performing arts, with many venues closed: ABT canceled its 2021 season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which had been scheduled for June and July, in favor of digital and outdoor performances. Whiteside, however, is already planning for the company’s return. “Ballet is a wonderful place to spend some time,” he says. “When this is all over, I just want to get some butts in seats.”