Passion for the Dance: American Ballet Theatre
James Whiteside, Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre, speaks to Alistair Sutton about the company's historic visit to Australia in 2014 – and how he earned the nickname ‘the monkey’.
New York-based American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is coming to Brisbane for the first time as part of the 2014 QPAC International Series. Principal dancer James Whiteside started as a soloist with the company in 2012, previously having a distinguished repertoire with the Boston Ballet Company since 2003. Whiteside has been dancing since the age of nine; his passion for dance remains undiminished.
“I was a spaz as a child – still am,” he laughs. “I’d climb everything and my poor mother dubbed me ‘the monkey’! I’d tried everything from football to Boy Scouts and back. One day, my fed up mother threw me the phonebook and said, 'Pick something! I don’t care what it is, as long as you’re out of the house!' I was struck by an ad featuring a man lifting a woman over his head with one arm. It turned out to be for a dance studio! The rest is history.”
The ABT was founded in 1939 and is considered a national treasure. From August 28 to September 7, the company will be presenting two productions at QPAC. The first is Swan Lake, which Whiteside describes as one of ballet's “greatest hits”, choreographed by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. The second will be a triple bill featuring Bach Partita, Seven Sonatas and Fancy Free, by three of the greatest choreographers of the modern era: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky.
Whiteside believes the program showcases the company's versatility of style and eliminates any preconceptions people may have about ballet.
“We’re bringing the best of both worlds to Brisbane,” he says. “Swan Lake is one of the greatest ballets ever made and ABT’s production is top-notch. Our mixed bill showcases where ballet is heading in the future, and I think that will be really exciting for audiences to see. You’re getting new school and old school back-to-back!
“ABT’s Swan Lake is so successful because it’s the very definition of classical ballet and modern virtuosity. The corps of swans move as one, the sets/costumes shine opulently, and the principals give legendary performances. I recall watching videos of ABT’s Swan Lake as an aspiring ballet student and being blown away.”
This 2014 season in Brisbane is very much in keeping with ABT's vision to develop a repertoire of the best ballets from the past and encourage the creation of new works. The company has appeared in 132 cities in 42 countries over the years. The logistics of bringing the company's 90 dancers out to Australia were mind-boggling, according to Whiteside.
“Luckily, I’m not the one dealing with the touring schedule! We have amazing company managers and production staff who make sure we all arrive in one piece. I speak for everyone in ABT when I say that we’re beyond thrilled to be coming to Australia for the first time in the company's 75 year history.”
The dedication required of a classical ballet dancer is all-encompassing, the daily practice of endless routines and choreography comes at a price. Whiteside is on record as saying the attainment of perfection is an unattainable obsession, which is “strangely alluring.” As an openly gay man does his sexuality impact on his career?
“People always ask me if being gay hurts my career,” Whiteside explains. “It probably does but I’d never hide myself. My work speaks for itself. I don't need to hide behind 'the norm' to be taken seriously as an artist. With ABT, I’ve never felt that my sexual orientation has anything to do with my career and I’ve never made any attempts to conceal my sexuality.”
Whiteside always thought big from the beginning, but even he probably could not have envisaged how far this life has taken him. The support of his family has always been important.
“When I was first promoted to Principal my father said, 'You're actually doing this!' I'm a huge fan of having lofty goals. A broad vision and high dreams have gotten me very far. I never saw myself achieving my goals, I just knew I had to do try. As for any advice I have for aspiring ballet dancers – there's a quote from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 'Don't dream it. Be it,' that pretty much sums it up.”
What does Whiteside have to say about Australia and more importantly Australian men? “I had never been to Oz before my press tour earlier this year. I thought the gentlemen were exceedingly handsome! I'm excited to have some good Aussie coffee too. We all know what American coffee tastes like!”
ABT Swan Lake, August 28 – September 4; Triple Bill, September 5-7, 2014, at QPAC, cnr Grey and Melbourne St, South Bank, Bookings: 136 246 / qpac.com.au
IMAGE: James Whiteside, Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre.