In this interview, Whiteside discusses the sacrifices we, perhaps all too readily, make for our careers.
Hi, James, let’s start by discussing what stage in your career you’d describe yourself to be in.
I feel like my career right now is in a really happy, healthy place. I’m in the company of my dreams, one that I’ve wanted to be in since I was a kid, so I’m extremely happy. And I’m 32 years old, so I have to start thinking about what I’m going to do when I retire from ballet, and that’s something that sort of looms in my mind at the moment. But overall, I feel very comfortable, very secure in my trajectory.
I’m sure you’ve answered this question enough times, but will you give a snapshot of
what your training background was like? I believe I read somewhere that you began your training in jazz and didn’t shift your focus to ballet until high school.
Yeah, so I started dancing at D'Valda & Sirico Dance Centre when I was nine years old in Fairfield, Connecticut. I started with jazz, tap, and acrobatics, and in order to move up a level in jazz you have to take at least one ballet class a week. So my teachers put me in a ballet class and I really was not interested in it; it wasn’t really something that held my attention [like] dancing around to Michael Jackson in a jazz class. But eventually they swindled me into more and more ballet classes, and by the time I was 14 they had persuaded me to go the American Ballet Theatre summer intensive in New York City, so I did two years of that summer intensive.That’s the studio that I rehearse at now, so things have come pretty full circle.
But after two years of that, they told me that they could no longer offer me a full scholarship to the program. My family didn’t have enough money to pay to put me through the program, so I had to find another option. At this point, I realized that I wasn’t actually very good at ballet, or at least not as good I wanted to be. I auditioned for the Virginia School of the Arts, which is no longer open, actually. It was in Lynchburg, Virginia—go figure, a town in Virginia called “Lynchburg.” Pretty messy. I went there for a year and trained exclusively in ballet and a little bit of modern dance, and really got the whole ballet school thing going. Then I auditioned for Boston Ballet’s summer program and I received a scholarship, [so] I went there. I did—I think it was—six weeks of the summer course there, and then they offered me an apprenticeship with the company. So I left school and finished my high school education while I was working in Boston Ballet.
And that’s my training.
Initially you weren’t a strong ballet dancer. What do you feel strengthened your
technique and artistry—was it just diligent practice or did you have mentors and coaches that really supported you?
There were so many things that helped me along the way. Honestly, I’ve been living at a job. When I joined Boston Ballet I was very raw, rough around the edges. I didn’t really know what a classical ballet dance was supposed to look like, or how they were supposed to dance. So it took me—I mean, I’m still learning now. It’s a process and there [are] so many people that’ve helped me along the way, people that’ve believed in my potential. Yeah, I’ve had my guardian angels over the years, of course.
Dance is this interesting medium for a few reasons: it combines performance art with
athleticism, it’s heavily dependent on teamwork, and a dancer is simultaneously the painter and the canvas. I would like to touch on those points for a bit. First, I want to ask if you felt that having training in various styles strengthened or challenged you in your development within ballet? And I wonder [about] that both in regard to techniques, but also in the pieces you perform in ballet.
I think that I have a definite edge over people that who have [only] trained in ballet. I have an adaptable form that I can tailor to various pieces, choreographers, styles. I pride myself on not being stuck to one style of dance. I think it’s really important, and I find [that] people who have experience in other styles of dance tend to have a greater perspective and just a greater willingness to transform themselves.
An athlete’s career has a finite shelf life; any season could be their last and they always need to consider what they will do once they transition out of their sports career. You use your body as intensely as any athlete, so I’m curious if you contemplate these things.
I have such a number of things that I’m really interested in. Of course, I love dancing; I’d love to stay in the dance world as a choreographer or a director. I’m not terribly interested in opening a school or anything like that. But I have lots of other interests as well; I produce music and write, and [I’d like to] get some formal training in digital music production and see where that can lead.
I also like making dance films. There are so many options. I just need to make some choices, and I think when you’re done with ballet you don’t really have the luxury of picking exactly the thing you wanna do. You have to sort of ride the circumstances and exactly where you are at that specific time when you retire, and I trust that I’m not gonna be lost. I’ll be happy and know that I’ll do something that I enjoy and that inspires me.
OK, now I want to move on to the artistry of dance. What comes more naturally for you, encompassing your character or mastering technique?
That’s a good question. I think as the years progress, the character becomes more important to me ‘cause I have a foundation of techniques that I rely on, and as I become more mature as an artist I find my way in the character part more confidently. I have a greater idea of what these people are supposed to be, and I’ve seen some other performances that have inspired me—this whole number of things that hopefully get me to the place, character-wise, that I want to be.
Technique is funny; it’s important to be able to hit a set, but if there’s no character and no heart or no style, then I don’t really see the point.
What do you think the audience would forgive more, [not encompassing the character or technique?]
Yeah, they do [both] all the time. There are people who are really compelling performers that have limited technique or a style that’s really charming. I find [that] the audiences latch onto people that maybe aren’t perfect but have something special.
A painter or a photographer—to go back to the comparison to artists of different mediums—has the freedom to create what interests them, so their struggle is in communicating, or “pushing,” the work to gallerists, curators, or whomever. Dance is quite different: you’re a part of a production that someone else is directing. Are there times you struggled with what you’ve been cast in, whether it be the concept of the
production, the direction it was under, the people that you were partnered with, or even ballet itself?
Yes, of course. There are times when you don’t like the ballet you’re dancing; there are times that you don’t like the person you’re dancing with, but you don’t really have a choice, and you owe it to yourself, to the performance, and [to] ballet in general to make it work and give it your best shot. I find [that] if there’s something I’m missing creatively, I’ll find it elsewhere. So I like to stay busy in this way and have a lot of ideas and try to bring them to fruition.
If you’re compromising in one of those ways, then what is the benefit of the compromise?
I think the benefit is having the discipline to overcome your frustration and how uncomfortable you might feel, and the benefit is using it as a learning experience to get better in a way that you didn’t really want to.
[People] in the fine arts [have] this flexibility in schedule: they decide the residencies or fellowships that they accept, the exhibitions they will show for, or the lectures that they speak at. And if something should happen in their lives, then they’re able to withdraw from those commitments. I would imagine that you don’t have that flexibility. Are you able [to] find balance [in] your life, or are there things you have to sacrifice in order to be who you are—a principal at "America's National Ballet Company?”
Yeah, it’s full of sacrifice. I do not have a balance and I never have. I don’t see myself having a balance for a while. I am very unavailable for a lot of life things: weddings, birthdays, funerals, holidays, mostly family gatherings and things that people can just sort of call out of work for.
It’s interesting, because why is that? Why have we allowed this to be the norm? But we have. We’re all very aware of the competition and how important it is to appear really willing and [to] play the game, if you will. So I guess the fear allows us to not have a balance.
You’re unionized at the American Ballet Theatre, but that wasn’t the case at Boston
No, we were union in Boston as well.
Does that make a difference for you?
Of course, of course. We’d be rehearsing well into the night if we didn’t have a union. It looks out for our bodies, our lives, our bank accounts. It doesn’t allow preferential treatment. It’s really necessary.
So you got into ballet a bit late; you attended ABT’s summer intensive, but then [you were] denied the scholarship that you were awarded in the prior summers, and you spent ten years outside of the New York scene as a dancer in the Boston Ballet. It feels like your story is one of persistence and patience.
For sure. I always wanted to be in ABT; they just wouldn’t have me. I auditioned maybe four or five times for the apprentice company when I was a teenager and never got in. So it was very exciting for me to get a job in 2012 and get promoted to principal. I don’t know what to say other [that] that it is a story of persistence and dedication, and I have to say that I am proud of myself.
It was a long road to get here.
Are there things that you wish you could tell your younger self?
There are little things, but nothing that would really change that much, honestly. I really do feel like I’ve done most of what I have in my power to get where I wanna be. I’d say the same thing to any aspiring dancer: [have] patience and persevere and have discipline. Learn from others, watch people around you that are better, learn why, and try to match them, then exceed them.
Honestly, just pretty generic stuff like that.
So when you say, “Try to match them and exceed them,” would you say dance is more competition than community?
No, I find ABT especially to be extremely family-oriented; we generally all get along wonderfully and people are very respectful. We really do have a good time together, with a fun group of people, and we all really love what we’re doing. Even though it’s a really difficult path, we all share that understanding and that creates a bond and a camaraderie that is so unique. But, yeah, competition is fierce, of course. But it’s not rude or malicious—it’s not like Showgirls.