PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL MOSS
ABT’s big gun: James Whiteside
An in depth visit with the ballet dancer
We met James Whiteside at a downtown social event where a friend of ours pointed out that he was the new principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. When we were introduced we were like OMG, he’s so hot and knew at that moment we had to feature him. After doing some research later that night we discovered that James’ boyfriend is non other than Milk, one of the contestants from this season’s Rupaul’s Drag Race. We had the rare opportunity to meet James at the ABT rehearsal studios, follow him to the locker room and rehearsal space for an interview and photo shoot. In anticipation of the May 12th start of ABT’s 2014 Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House we bring you this up close and personal vivid with James.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? I pee. ..
Anything after that? A morning routine? Yes. I always make a cup of coffee and bagels or eggs, and I read a book, whatever I’m reading currently, and then I walk over to the ballet building and listen to music while I stretch.
When did you start dancing? I started dancing when I was 9 years old at a school called Fairfield Dance Center, in Connecticut.
Is that where you grew up, in Connecticut? Yeah, Fairfield. Between Fairfield and Bridgeport.
Where did you go to school? I trained at the Dance Center when I was a kid until I was about 15, and then I went to Virginia School of the Arts in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then I moved to Boston and started working professionally when I was 17.
How did you make the transition from the Boston Ballet to American Ballet Theatre? So I had been in Boston Ballet for 10 years. I wanted new inspiration, new motivation, new repertoire and New York City, so I auditioned during Nutcracker season. On my one day off I took a bus to New York City and I took a company class here in this studio and the director spoke to me afterwards and he said he wanted to offer me something. So here I am! I’m very happy.
How many hours a week do you rehearse? We do a technique class every day for strength and maintenance, pretty much, and that is an hour and a half a day, and then we rehearse for six hours afterward.
What do you mean by ‘we’? Is it a standard of ABT? Yeah, we’re actually unionized so all of our schedules are the same pretty much. I mean, every day you can have six hours or you can do overtime, so some days you’ll do seven hours or more in a row without a break. We get five minute breaks on the hour, every hour, so if you don’t have a lunch break that day you have to sort of shove some food down your neck and get back to work.
What’s the most difficult role you have danced to date? That’s hard. The thing is there are roles that are technically easy but difficult to portray. So you can have a role that’s technically really hard but simple in a presentation sort of way. So I think it’s hard to say what the most difficult ballet I’ve done is because there’s always really hard parts and different facets of dance.
What modern choreographers would you like to work with? There are some standard European choreographers that I’d love to work personally with like William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián, but there are also different styles that I’d love to get involved with. Musical theater and even hip hop and jazz. So I think it’s not as much choreographer as styles that I’d like to get involved with.
Have you always been open about your sexuality in a professional dance environment? I’ve always been out, so to speak. I never thought that there would be any other way. It never occurred to me to not be out, so it’s so interesting to me when people ask me if it was a decision to be out in the world of ballet because it never crossed my mind.
Yeah, maybe it’s just a thing that I hear from other people is that no one really comes out in ballet because they think it will affect their career. Well, it probably does and will.
In what way do you think it does? Well, as a gay guy it’s hard to play straight all the time. All of my roles are straight men, so I have to act counter to my nature. That’s very difficult and especially for me who is very open about what I do outside of work, that could really hurt me if the people controlling my career are very conservative. So I don’t want to be anywhere where that’s a problem and luckily it’s not.
I know about your collaboration with the drag group the Dairy Queens… When was the first time you did drag? I lived in Boston with three of my best friends, and we all rented a big brownstone in the South End of Boston, and my friend came down the stairs from the second floor in a pair of high heels and a feather boa and a sheer gown and said, “You have ten minutes to get ready, you can go through all of my drag, we’re gonna make some memories here and sing a couple of songs together.” And so we thought that would be a really fun idea, so we went and changed into whatever he had and we ran around the apartment singing Whitney Houston songs.
Did you guys take photos and videos? Yeah, we took videos of each other singing the songs. It was a party pretty much, just with four people.
Tell me more about your collaboration with the Dairy Queens — How did that start? So my boyfriend Dan Donigan, who is Milk, is the founder of the Dairy Queens. When we first met he was seriously opposed to drag, and it was something that my friends and I did for laughs basically. We’d go out and have an excellent time and create personas and mess with people and basically have a party and he thought it was really weird. So after awhile of dating he was willing to try it and it turns out he loves it more than all of us combined, so he thought it would be really fun to get our friends together and make a sort of house of drag, if you will. Since his name is Milk he thought it’d be fun to be the Dairy Queens — It’s Milk and the Dairy Queens.
Who are the members? It’s Milk, Yoohoo, which is me, Skim, Jugs, and Linda Lakes.
Are there any future plans with the Dairy Queens? I mean, it’s a fun side project, but Dan, Milk, is on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6, so I feel like it’s gonna be hard to escape the Dairy Queens in a way because people are gonna want to see us out and about. But it’s very hard with work because I don’t do anything when I’m working, and I don’t go out on school nights. I behave myself. So generally it’s the Dairy Queens minus Yoohoo.
I guess you don’t really have days off. How many months a year do you have off? I can’t really count that because we do guest performances and I do ballet gigs around the world. I’m always doing something.
Was it always your goal to become principal at ABT? Ever since I was 11 I had a dream of being in the ABT. My dance teachers used to take me to the spring gala every year. I remember watching the dancers and being completely awestruck at their talent. This was even before I was even really interested in ballet. I just had this idea of being a principal in American Ballet Theater, and it’s been a dream come true.
So you’ve always been this ambitious? I don’t know, for some reason I always had this idea of being here.
What inspires you? I think music is my biggest inspiration. Music inspires me to dance. I can find inspiration in whatever. I love to cook, I can find inspiration in that. It’s just things that make me feel things. I can be inspired to dance by music, by a certain fashion, I can be inspired by a movie I saw last week. I can be inspired to feel a certain way because of something else, and I think I live better because of that, because I can take these things in and I appreciate the art.
What do you wear to bed? So last night I wore a pair of boxer-briefs that my friend gave me. They’re bright orange and have ears of corn all over them. Yeah, so I wore my corn underwear to bed last night.
James Whiteside will perform with American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House starting May 12th 2014. Get tickets here.