Recent seasons have seen ballet stars such as Misty Copeland and siblings Robert and Megan Fairchild leap into roles on the Broadway stage, reminding us of the enduring bond between musical theater and an art form that has figured heavily into classics such as Oklahoma!, On the Town, and West Side Story. James Whiteside, who, like Copeland, is a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre, is himself a Broadway enthusiast, a fan of cast recordings from Rent to Dear Evan Hansen. “I’m desperate to see more musicals and plays,” he says. “I’m going to make it happen this year.”
Given his multiple talents — which also include singing, writing, and producing, in addition to choreography — and the roles he has juggled outside ballet, as dance/pop artist JbDubs and drag queen Ühu Betch (with the posse the Dairy Queens), Whiteside would seem an ideal candidate for musical theater. But for now his plate is quite full at ABT, where he is playing a number of iconic roles this season — among them Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and the toreador Espada in Don Quixote.
Whiteside was 12 years old and had been studying for several years when he decided he wanted to make ballet his profession, and his current company played a crucial role in that decision, he says: “My teachers took me to see ABT at the Met and I fell in love.” The work was Le Corsaire: “It’s a ridiculous romp starring pirates, harem girls, slaves, and other characters that don’t stand the test of time. Nevertheless, the virtuosity and dedication of ABT’s dancers filled me with awe. The sets, costumes, and the theatre itself inspired lofty goals in me. I told myself I’d get on that stage someday and that I’d have a dressing room in that famous red hallway.”
He adds, “’The widest possible audience’ is my favorite part of ABT’s mission. … I want to see people from every walk of life out there while I’m twirling and emoting. I’m going to do everything in my power to make everyone feel welcome, and hopefully, in the future, create ways for underprivileged people to experience dance.”
Over time, “I believe the goals of dancers have not changed,” Whiteside says. “As Prince Siegfried, I’m performing the role of a human for humans.” Romeo, similarly, “is naïve. That’s a state of being all too common, now and seemingly always. His character arc is one of childish hope to disillusionment, and then extreme loss and despair. Unfortunately, loss and despair are experienced by every human being as we age. Hopefully we experience love along the way, even if it ends in loss. I believe it’s worth it.”
Espada, in contrast, is “all flash and bang, which I deeply appreciate.” (He models the character “after the cartoon Johnny Bravo.”) With the fanciful Whipped Cream, which casts him as Prince Coffee, “I’m in complete awe of the sets and costumes. Not only are Mark Ryden’s designs strange and beautiful, but the way they’ve been transformed into real-life entities is astonishing.”
Whiteside’s roles also include the Harlequin in Harlequinade, staged by renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (after Marius Petipa). Whiteside says the part is “particularly comfortable for me,” since “I’ve always been a clown, as I’m sure my family and even dance teachers can confirm.”
Whiteside can also be serious and purposeful. As a gay man, “I’m desperate for queer roles in ballet. I adore acting and consider myself an actor, but wouldn’t it be nice for once to dance a role that spoke to my truest truth? I implore choreographers and creators to consider this when creating. Make new work inclusive. Make thoughtful changes to the way dance is made and I believe it will be rewarding. I will do my best to create a wide array of work now and in the future.”
That approach will clearly apply to Whiteside’s projects outside ballet. As JbDubs, “I’ve got new music brewing constantly,” he says. “I’m currently working on a revamp of an old song called ‘Left Alone/Right Here’ that has a more somber tone than my songs usually do. It deals with coming out and my family’s reaction. I felt so alone, yet I had so much will to not let it get me down.”
On a lighter note, there’s his ongoing work with the Dairy Queens. “If I were to introduce Ühu to someone,” he notes cheekily, “I’d say, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my Aunt Ühu. She’s bipolar, has a drinking problem, and has strong thighs.’”
Asked if he would consider eventually working Broadway into his schedule, Whiteside is unequivocal: “I’ll be on Broadway someday. I absolutely must!”
American Ballet Theatre will be performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York from May 14-July 7. For tickets visit abt.org or call 212 362 6000.