BALLET is an art form known for its discipline and exacting standards. Only the rare few can physically achieve what it demands. If the mind is not as strong at the dancer’s core muscles, then success is a distant dream.
James Whiteside’s assent to Principal Dancer of American Ballet Theatre is all the more remarkable considering he didn’t care much for ballet at first.
However, with some pressure he was pushed down that path.
“Ballet wasn’t always my passion, I started dancing at nine years old in jazz and tap classes,” he told the Star Observer.
His teachers seemed to have seen something beyond his passing interest, so they enticed him with ABT during his spring break.
“It wasn’t until they started taking me to ABT’s yearly spring galas that I saw what ballet could be. I was given full scholarships to ABT’s Summer Intensive two years in a row,” he said.
“I attended (the spring galas) with all the focus of a wayward teen in hopes that I’d be selected to be in ABT’s Studio Company. Such was not the case. I wasn’t even in the highest level. In fact, I was in the third-lowest.”
There were more bad news when ABT dropped him altogether after he started to lose his focus.
“Needless to say, it was time to get my act together. I went to the now-defunct Virginia School of the Arts in my sophomore year of high school and cracked down on ballet. That year, I received a letter stating that I would no longer be receiving a scholarship to the ABT summer course,” Whiteside recalled.
“Naturally, I was devastated.”
When looking at his career highlights, those early days still sit with him: “I sometimes feel that milestones and hurdles are synonymous. I had many obstacles in my way before becoming a principal dancer.”
Despite the rocky start to his career, Whiteside’s talent and focus paid off and he forged a career as a professional dancer, a promotion to corps de ballet, second-soloist, soloist, and finally, principal.
But he wanted something more. His childhood-missed opportunity still nagged. He had some unfinished business.
“I decided to audition for my old obsession, American Ballet Theatre,” he said.
“I took class with the company on my day off from Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker.”
He got the gig as a soloist, which was his fairy tale.
“The next thing I knew, I was looking for an apartment in the East Village,” he said.
“I spent a year as a soloist and was then promoted to principal dancer. It was a real Disney moment, dreams really do come true.”
Whiteside is openly-gay and his roles often tell stories of heterosexual intimacy, but he did not see it that way: “I’m a gay man, often if not always portraying a straight man, so intimacy is not always the best word to use when describing my relationships with my partners. I’m acting, pulling feelings from life experiences and applying them to what I feel the scene calls for, which is great fun. My personal life is very simple and fulfilling, full of love and laughter.”
The question of the blokey Australian identity was raised and whether male ballet dancers had a tough time earning the reputation of being manly, but Whiteside dismissed gender stereotypes with some class.
“I’m probably the wrong person to answer that question. It doesn’t actually matter, all this current political nonsense will be long over in a couple hundred years. Anybody have a time machine?” he said.
Earlier this year, Whiteside trained with Queensland Ballet Theatre. Even while relaxing he had perfect posture, defined and muscular, supported by hyper-flexibility. So much so, that you wouldn’t think he was couch-dwelling gamer.
However, he inadvertently admitted otherwise: “I love going out to eat with my friends, seeing movies, making music and doing nerdy stuff like playing video games. It’s getting increasingly difficult to stay connected to loved ones, but I’m always trying to FaceTime my friends.”
When he returns to Australia in August, Whiteside planned to explore more: “I had an incredible time on my advance visit. The people were so kind and accommodating. Culturally, I noticed that Aussies are extremely proud of their food, wine, and coffee, which is a-okay in my book.”
A COUP FOR THE NORTHERNERS
AMERICAN Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake coming to Australia is not the only amazing thing to come out of this historic tour. And that’s saying something.
In its first-ever visit to Australia, ABT will perform two productions: Swan Lake choreographed by artistic director Kevin McKenzie and a triple bill collectively called Three Masterpieces that features the works of three of the greatest choreographers of the modern era: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky.
McKenzie is critically-acclaimed and his interpretation of Swan Lake in Australia is set to be a special experience for ballet-lovers and curious first-timers alike. As it is a classic, other companies can tour with this, so there will be other opportunities to see it.
The ballets presented in ABT’s Three Masterpieces are Bach Partita, Seven Sonatas and Fancy Free. They are signature works in the contemporary repertoire, when some of the world’s best choreographers were unshackled from the creative restrictions that usually formed the core of classic reprisals. If they were to veer too far from the paradigm, no matter how beautifully done, they could have stood accused of having contempt for the classic work.
As the Three Masterpieces coming to Australia is unique to ABT, it would be harder to see these original works. This is ABT’s first trip down under and they are not expected back anytime soon.
To get a sense of the respect that the company has back in the US, they have been given the most American of endorsements: legal recognition. The New York-based company is the US’ National Ballet Company, as named by an Act of the US Congress. It is also considered a living national treasure.
The ABT’s upcoming tour is also a coup for the northerners, leaving the usual landing places of Sydney and Melbourne flat-footed. It wasn’t going by unnoticed, either.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph appeared a little miffed about the Queensland coup and in an editorial it quizzed Destination NSW as to what was going on: “It is the second time in less than a year that QPAC [Queensland Performing Arts Centre] has nailed exclusive rights to a prestigious international classical ballet company. In 2013, Russia’s Bolshoi performed to sell-out audiences in Brisbane and now the US’s national company is set to perform two works.”
QPAC is increasingly gaining a reputation of delivering world-class productions and at the announcement, it was made clear that there was more to come. Just as Queenslanders have often had to head south for shows, QPAC is seeking to be an arts destination for the southerners.
Queensland’s arts minister Ian Walker said: “The Australian exclusive was a fabulous coup for Brisbane that would build on Queensland’s reputation as an arts and cultural hub.
QPAC chief executive John Kotzas, credited as a key operative in the northern exclusives, said: “ABT is a much younger company than some of their European counterparts but they have been brazen with their identity on the world stage.
“They have shown their commitment to the foundations of ballet and the pieces that have built the historical depth of this art form; yet they also offer a contemporary interpretation through modern works. ABT has a diverse repertoire and as such a welcome place in our International Series and one that Australian audiences are long overdue to witness.”
For lovers of ballet or the arts more broadly, it seems to be time to find a good travel agent.
Swan Lake will perform at QPAC from August 28-September 4. The Three Masterpieces will perform at QPAC from September 5-7. Details: http://www.qpac.com.au/