Interview: James Whiteside's YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL Makes New York Premiere at The Joyce

Catch the program at The Joyce Theater from May 1st-May 5th!

By: Apr. 28, 2024
Interview: James Whiteside's YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL Makes New York Premiere at The Joyce
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Ballet dancer, choreographer, author, pop star, content creator: James Whiteside does it all.

Formerly with Boston Ballet, Whiteside was named Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre in 2013, and hasn’t slowed down since. A prolific standout in the company, synonymous with roles like Solor in La Bayadère and the Prince in Ashton’s Cinderella, Whiteside has become just as dazzling a choreographer, with exciting projects around every corner.

Including right now: Starting May 1st, the ABT Studio Company will return to The Joyce Theater to perform, among other works, Whiteside’s latest piece, Young & Beautiful. Inspired by the glorious—if fragile—nature of dance, Whiteside is both nodding to the past, but boldly celebrating the now in what promises to be a dynamic piece, full of heart and soul.

I recently sat down with James to talk about the piece and his latest artistic adventures.Interview: James Whiteside's YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL Makes New York Premiere at The Joyce

Q: There’s so much to talk about with you—you always have so many things going on at once! Let’s start off with More Than Nothing, which you choreographed for Youth America Grand Prix’s 25th Anniversary Gala.

JW: Larissa [Saveliev, YAGP’s Founder and Artistic Director] reached out to me to choreograph something for the 25th Anniversary Gala. She had a musician that she really wanted me to work with named Matthew Whitaker, who’s an incredible jazz musician, and she had a piece of music she thought would be a party piece anchor for the night. When she asked me who I wanted to work with, I said, “Well, this music is so festive, that I want to have some of my favorite dancers in there,” so I asked Catherine [Hurlin], Jake [Roxander], and Bella [Isabella Boylston] if they were interested and available, and they said yes. And that was pretty much that! I got to make them a dance and it premiered on [April 18th].

Q: It must be exciting to work with friends—you’ve been dancing together for a long time. There must be a different kind of communication that happens when you’re putting a piece on dancers that you know well.

JW: Yes. it just goes so quickly, honestly, because we know each other so well. I knew we wouldn’t have a whole lot of time to make the piece, [so] we got into the studio and it was ‘bing, bang, boom’. It was really fun and organic, and just a blast to make.

Q: You were also Baryshnikov Arts’ Artist-in-Residence that same week. Talk to me about that experience.

JW: I was selected as their Artist-in-Residence for the past week, and during that time, I worked on More Than Nothing for the YAGP gala, as well as workshopping a section of a piece for an upcoming commission. (Writer's Note: No spoilers yet!) So, I used ABT dancers SunMi Park and Joseph Markey and created a pas de deux for them.

Q: You’re more than a multi-hyphenate: that would be an easy label to put on you because you do everything—dancing, choreographing, acting. But it’s more than that: you’re paving new roads and creating relevance for people that aren’t in the dance world, and bringing your artistry to new audiences. So, let’s talk about Young & Beautiful through that lens: What was the motivation for this piece?

JW: Well, thank you for that, that’s really kind. I was commissioned to make a work for the ABT Studio Company. In thinking about what kind of music I wanted to use, I have a whole playlist of different types of music, and it felt a little boring or expected. The dancers in this company are just becoming professional, and I wanted to do something that they might resonate with and have a good time with. 

And in listening to Lana Del Rey, I was like, “This is so theatrical and cinematic and lyrical and fabulous”—this would be a really fun way to go for this piece...but then realized it wasn’t quite enough—it still lacked a vibe. And I’ve just been watching a lot of ballet documentaries on YouTube and I came across this documentary called ‘Silver Feet’, which was documenting the trials and tribulations of three aspiring students who were trying to get into the San Francisco Ballet school. And it was just so relatable. 

So much of it is the exact same; so much of it you couldn’t say today, and it was just fascinating to see this little portal in time to the 1990s. It feels like things are kind of the same, but also have improved in a lot of ways. So I used clips from that documentary interwoven with the music, and it made it tie together in a cohesive story of these young people who have their whole careers ahead of them. And, it also tells the story of what I’m doing as an older dancer. I have done a lot in my career, and I’ve been so lucky...I’m not saying I’m retiring anytime soon, but of course I’m thinking about what I want to do after I stop performing…But that will be a while, so don’t get crazy [laughs].

Q: You bring up a very good point, because those types of themes are cyclical: as a dancer, you’re always grappling with things, and they come in waves. With the choreography, how did you take the music and the documentary and apply it to the kind of movement you wanted to create?

JW: I feel like I always have a pretty strong idea of what I want to do physically for the pieces I make, and I’m pretty decisive when it comes to what I’m doing. I listen to the music and I’m confident about what I want to make to it. The songs have stories within them, so the challenge is making them thematic as opposed to too literal, and that’s where I take it from.

Q: You said something very poignant earlier about the documentary, how certain things have remained the same in dance culture, and how some things have progressed over time. What do you hope that Young & Beautiful reflects back to the dance community at large?

JW: My wish is that this piece celebrates the care and the love we have for ballet, and acknowledges the temporal nature of what we do in a poignant way that feels self-aware and sweet, but has a little bit of savagery to it. I don’t necessarily need people to walk away having learned anything, I just want them to connect with a very relatable premise: Aging is hard, and you want to make it in whatever you’re doing. The desperation that we feel as artists often outshines other forms of desperation in, say, corporate life. We’re so passionate; it’s all we want. And it’s hard when there’s a time limit on it. 

Q: Ballet technique has also evolved dramatically over the last 50+ years. Does it feel easier to choreograph something like this, or does it feel like you have to hearken back to a previous time in history?

JW: The dance I make is very much a product of my generation, my training, and the interests I’ve had forever. I think anybody who watches this piece or any of my dances will see references to things I like. Whether it's Bob Fosse or Balanchine or a Britney Spears music video, you’ll see where I get my inspiration from movement-wise. And it’s all also through the lens of classical ballet technique. It’s ballet, very much so. All the dancers are doing steps that have been around for hundreds of years, but it’s undeniably a product of who I am and what I’ve been up to over the past 40 years. 

Q: There are schools of thoughts that would suggest classical technique should remain siloed from broader cultural references. As we move and change—both as dancers and as human beings appreciating art—how important is it that ballet movement be more fluid, in terms of cultural inspiration?

JW: It’s so individual. For me, the focus is less esoteric than some ballet choreographers. I want ballet to be commercially successful; I am very interested in classical, proscenium dance, but I’m also very interested in creating commercial ballet. So, I’m trying to create little avenues for myself to make things in many different styles of dance because that’s how I was trained. I was trained in jazz and tap and ballet and lyrical and modern—Graham, acrobatics, you name it. And it’s all in there and I want to explore all that. I don’t think things should be siloed off unless the creator wants them to be, and I don’t want them to be. 

Q: That’s exciting to hear in anticipation of seeing Young and Beautiful.

JW: I just hope people enjoy it. I strive to make ballet as entertaining as possible. Whatever it does to them, I just hope they enjoy the experience.

Q: As you look to premiering this piece and also to a new season performing with American Ballet Theatre, is there a specific motivation that’s driving and inspiring you?

JW: I just want to perform as much as I possibly can. I love performing. It is such a gift to be able to do that, so the more performances I can get under my belt every year, the happier I am. And by way of creating...I do the most I possibly can to provide myself with opportunities, so that I never feel creatively bored. I’ve always been making things. They’ve looked different over the years. They’ve looked like songs and albums and music videos and books and social media, you name it. I just like taking things out of my brain and putting them into the world. 

It’s a privilege.

Photo Credit: Emil Cohen