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What Type of Choreography Does a Ballet Dancer, Drag Queen, Pop Star Do?

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Oct 10, 2019

Veteran principal dancer James Whiteside makes his American Ballet Theatre choreographic debut


American Ballet Theatre's fall season is a two-week whirlwind of revelations. The troupe's full-length story ballets are in storage until next spring. From October 16 to 27 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, ABT's focus is on the fresh and unanticipated.

The programs, each featuring three or four pieces, offer a wealth of featured roles with plenty of debuts. There are four new works and, thanks to ABT's Women's Movement initiative, three are by women: Jessica Lang, ABT dancer Gemma Bond and Twyla Tharp.

Yet the most unexpected new piece comes from a man making his ABT debut as choreographer, though he's well-known to the troupe's fans: versatile principal dancer James Whiteside, whose New American Romance will be performed on October 23, 25 and 27.

Although Whiteside is celebrated for playing princely heroes in ABT's traditional 19th-century ballets, he also has an eclectic performing life beyond the company as a member of the drag collective The Dairy Queens and as the outrageous pop singer JbDubs. Yet New American Romance isn't some over-the-top hodgepodge. A work for eight dancers set to Debussy's Suite bergamasque, it's a deft variation on traditional ballet with surprising shifts.

"I think it's really important to confuse people," Whiteside says. "I know people might be expecting something like my work that I do for my alter ego JbDubs, or perhaps something a little more commercial-looking. But I love ballet and I wanted to create something in my own voice while respecting ABT's very classical legacy."

New American Romance features a duet for soloists Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell. "They represent the reckless abandon of first love -- it's almost violent in its extreme," says Whiteside. "I grew up with a very narrow idea of what romance is, so I wanted to challenge myself to explore what it could be. I wanted to use the classical romantic ballet template to figure out what it really feels like to be romantic. There are different versions of romance -- friendship, solidarity, power, support. I think all those things can be romantic."

New American Romance was born out of Whiteside's participation in ABT's Incubator project, which encourages company members to try their hand at choreography. After his studio showing, Whiteside asked ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie to keep him in mind for other opportunities. When a spot opened up on the company's July program at Vail Dance Festival, he got his shot.

Whiteside created the ballet in five days during the company's hectic eight-week spring season, which he notes was his busiest ever. He worked with five women and three men in between rehearsals and tweaked the piece during a subsequent tour. "The dancers were so focused," he recalls. "I felt their belief, which was really special," he says.

Considering he does drag on the side, it's fitting that Whiteside was the one to procure the costumes. From the outset he envisioned the women in midnight-blue tutus, so he worked out a deal with dancewear makers Primadonna. "I asked, 'Can we do an exchange or discount, and we will promote your tutu shop any time we post a photo or talk about the ballet?'" he says. "They said, 'We'll do it for free -- just keep mentioning us.' Meanwhile, the men are in $20 pirate shirts from Amazon that our head of wardrobe dyed."

Of course Whiteside will be on stage as a dancer a good deal this season, too. He is in Gemma Bond's world premiere A Time There Was, set to a Benjamin Britten composition, and he'll dance to Tony Bennett songs in Jessica Lang's Let Me Sing Forevermore. He also has major roles in Alexei Ratmansky's expansive The Seasons and ABT's scintillating revival of Tharp's Deuce Coupe, returning highlights from the spring. ABT's fall season may only last two weeks, but it's an impressive showcase of the company's diverse repertoire, from Balanchine classics to emerging artists.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for several ABT fall season programs. Go here to browse our current offers.

Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Skylar Brandt, Sarah Lane and James Whiteside in ABT's The Seasons. Photo by Marty Sohl.

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.