Ballet Dancer James Whiteside is Trading Vapid Princes For a Descent Into Madness

James Whiteside

James Whiteside wants to be wicked. It’s a descriptor that might surprise fans of the dancer, who has often played the role of the vapid prince in productions at New York’s American Ballet Theater. It’s no shock that the company’s Principal Dancer falls easily into these characters, of course. His tall, muscular body and angular face would blend effortlessly into the cast of any Disney fairy tale but he’s saying goodbye to being Mr. Nice Guy.

From November 6th to the 11th, he’ll pirouette into madness on the Joyce Theater’s stage in The Tenant. In director and choreographer Arthur Pita's adaptation of the 1964 Roland Topor novel, Whiteside is stepping into the shoes of Trelkovsky, a Parisian who moves into an apartment whose previous tenant, Simone Choule, had committed suicide by jumping out the window. As the dancer wryly explained, “things do not go according to plan in a very extreme way.”

Related | Gay in Ballet: Two Men are Defying Traditions in the Dance World

In many ways, the psychologically thrilling production is a fresh start for the multitalented artist. He’s already dabbled in everything from drag and podcasting to singing and modeling, but with The Tenant, he’s set his sights on exploring his dark side — and maybe even a slide into cinemas. “A big dream of mine is to be a Jack Nicholson type. A character villain,” he explained of his acting ambitions. What better way to audition himself for a future in cinematic villainy than to spend seven days going into a psychologically paranoid spiral while performing perfect pas de basques?

Ahead of the production’s dark debut at the Joyce Theater, we dressed up Whiteside in a colorful, androgynous array of garments and talked to the star about Betty Boop Halloween costumes, working with the “David Lynch of ballet” on The Tenant, and inspiring a new generation of queer ballet kids.  

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Beaded singlet by Nihl.

OUT: Did you read The Tenant before you got started on the production?

James Whiteside: Yeah, definitely. I zipped right through it. I’ve read the book three times now and I’ll probably read it again before the premiere.

What was your reaction to the story?

I thought it was, first and foremost, a really fun psychological thriller. Upon reading it again and again, I find Trelkovsky’s arc to be really compelling. He begins as the hopeful new tenant of a building and things do not go according to plan in a very extreme way. That was really appealing to me as someone who plays very vapid princes so often. I don’t resent the fact that I play these characters, it’s just part of the ballet world and it’s hard to tell these really in-depth stories with ballet in mind.

This is one of your first productions that can be classified as “ballet theater.” How has that challenged you in comparison to more traditional ballet productions?

In a way, I find ballet to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. This almost feels more natural for me to dive into this psychologically dark world and explore those parts of myself that definitely exist. (Laughs)

The piece is ballet first and foremost but it’s ballet theater so you’re going to be doing a lot of acting. Would you ever want to go into acting?

 A big dream of mine is to be a Jack Nicholson type. A character villain. It’s something I think I would excel at. I have a very extreme face and physicality and understand movement very well. I think those are qualities that villains are required to possess and I can be quite cartoonish in a way.

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Floral bodysuit by Pissy Pussy.

This might be your audition! There’s a lot of gender-fluidity in the story. You’ve done drag and even in your photos for this feature, you look very androgynous. Do you feel that you’re at your most comfortable when you’re blurring those lines?

I feel that I’m at my most comfortable when I’m switching it up for myself. I get very exhausted doing the same thing all the time, and creatively I need to be doing something refreshing at all times. As far as gender fluidity goes, I’m very casual and wear whatever I want whenever, but it’s not like I’m in costume all the time. It’s not a Lady Gaga situation. I love track pants and a hoodie. I’m not mad at that. But, I really love to get dressed up and explore my femininity through movement and shape. Dance has really taught me so much about the feminine side as well as how to present the butch prince. It’s all acting and character acting is really important to me — to be able to switch up what people perceive me as.

Were you able to explore both sides of yourself growing up?

When I was a kid I had moments of extreme femininity and I don’t believe they were squashed. Like any little gay boy, I was running around in my mom’s pumps and wearing scarves around my head like a wig. I wanted to be Betty Boop for Halloween when I was six but my dad thought I was joking.

Do you have any gay ballet role models? I’m thinking of the Russian “Lord of the Dance” Rudolf Nureyev who died of AIDS in 1993.

Rudolf is my favorite. I believe that if he was around or in his prime today, he’d be a huge gay role model. I mean, being a Russian gay man is no walk in the park and I think it was probably really difficult for him. I heard he was a nightmare to deal with but his charisma and energy on stage and ability to transform his garish style are all correct in my mind. It really speaks to me as a gay male ballet dancer.

Your choreographer, Arthur Pita, has called himself the David Lynch of dance. What was it like working with him on this?

I don’t know what David Lynch is like as a person and only know his work, but I do know Arthur as a person and he’s so generous with kindness and support. It’s completely at odds with the macabre work that he creates. It reminds me a bit of Alexander McQueen. This man would come out at the end of his shows and you’d be like, who let that dad out on to the stage? (Laughs)

This also goes back to the character of Trelkovsky in The Tenant. You go through such a dark character arc. How did you mentally prepare for that?

It’s not that I’m preparing to be a dark force, it’s more how to start in a very hopeful place and allow this series of events to destroy me. I believe that when I’m in the production and begin, I feel that hope and as the story continues, pieces of me are whittled away and I’m inhabited by this tortured soul. I feel that and feel that strongly.

You’re going to need a big spa day after this show is over.

Oh my god, I’m going to need therapy. I mean I probably already need therapy. I definitely already need it but it’s so expensive. I went a couple of times and I was like, “I can’t afford this bye! I’ll deal with my mental anguish on my own.”

I want to talk a bit about books because I know you’re a big book nerd. What are some of your favorite books?

I’m a huge science fiction and fantasy fan so The Name of the Wind is one of my favorite fantasy novels. It’s beautiful and poignant and imaginative. I adore the Ender’s Game series — specifically the Shadow series. I find those to be more compelling.

As far as gay literature goes… let me pull up my Goodreads. I adore the [Bob] Fosse biography by Sam Wasson. Fosse is my choreography idol. I loved it. I thought it was long winded but rightly so. Oh! I also adore Jules Verne. I could talk about this stuff for ages.

If you could tell anything to the queer ballet kids who look up to you, what would you say?

I want queer kids to feel that they have a right to be in ballet class and be exploring themselves creatively. They have a right to be heard. I hope that opportunities for queer kids in the arts continue to expand and if I can be somewhat of an inspiration in that way, I am just very pleased with myself.

 

 

Director and choreographer Arthur Pita's The Tenant will run from November 6-11 at The Joyce Theater in Chelsea, New York. For more information or to buy presale tickets, click here.

 

Photography by Jasper Soloff.

Styled by Willyum Beck.

Set design by Murrie Rosenfeld.

Makeup by Chloe Pultar.

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