It is 1:30 a.m., and James Whiteside, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, is curled up in an Airbnb in London watching “Clash of the Titans.”
Also, he is doing this interview.
“Now is good!” Whiteside, 37, who suggested the time after flying to England with his boyfriend to attend a childhood friend’s wedding.
He’s on a break from American Ballet Theater rehearsals, which have begun in earnest in anticipation of a mid-October return to the stage. He also just published his first book, “Center Center,” an almost-memoir (“because I’m not old enough to write a memoir yet”), which covers his coming-out story, his ballet career and his mother’s death from cancer in 2016.
“I’m absolutely still grappling with things,” he said. “But writing it was quite enjoyable — I wrote about these things to feel better.”
In a late-night phone conversation, he explained why “The Legend of Zelda” would make for a perfect ballet, offered his picks for the choicest gay bars in Manhattan, and professed his undying love for Vera-Ellen‘s tap dancing skills. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I make playlists for every month — a down-tempo playlist and an up-tempo playlist. It’s been a way for me to discover a lot of new artists and music I want to choreograph to, via the little “Swipe Up” story feature.
2. Post-Lunch Coffee
Rehearsal days can be really taxing. There’s a certain amount of mental fatigue that goes along with physical fatigue and dancing all day, when you’re learning new choreography and you’re just having to engage with people a lot. So, after I eat lunch, I have to have a cup of coffee. It can really reinvigorate me to start dancing again and interacting with people in an artistic way.
I love the stories — the magic and fantasy as well as what’s called “slice of life,” which are normal situations in people’s lives that are incredibly beautiful and quite peaceful, even though they can be heavy. One of my favorite series is the original “Berserk.” And “Cowboy Bebop” — the music is fabulous. One of my favorite composers is Yoko Kanno; I’d love to work with her some time.
4. Old Ballet Books, Documentaries, Photos and Videos
In my mid- to late 20s, I started really taking an interest in — I don’t want to say ballet history, because it’s more visual than that for me. I’m not a person who’s gobbling up ballet biographies; I more like to see the dancers in film, photos and beautiful art books. Someone gave me a DVD at the stage door one year at the Met Opera and it was a bunch of old A.B.T. performances, like ’80s and ’90s mini documentaries. I’m into super old stuff like books on Nijinsky and the whole Ballets Russes era. The imagery and the costumes and the shapes are just so fabulous.
5. Late ’90s/Early Aughts Music Videos
I was born in ’84, so by the time 1999 rolled around I was fully at the age where I could appreciate T.R.L. [MTV’s Total Request Live]. I would watch T.R.L. every day while doing homework and learn the dances — Janet Jackson, ’N Sync, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, TLC. They spent time and money on these music videos because they were the best marketing for their music at the time. It isn’t quite the same now — I see so many lazy music videos.
6. Video Games
I find video games to be a real way for me to calm down. If I have time to play it means I have time, which is rare. I play Super Smash Bros. at A.B.T. in the lounge a lot during our lunch break. I like video games because the structure reminds me of a classical ballet. There are a lot of similar story elements and musical structures, and the main characters tend to be similarly heroic. “The Legend of Zelda” would be such a great ballet. It’s got everything you want — magic, beauty, great music.
7. Musical Numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood
I often go on YouTube and watch fabulous dance numbers from Old Hollywood. I love the “Abraham” tap number from “White Christmas,” where Vera-Ellen is in a yellow dress. She has another one called “Mandy” that’s really great. There’s one with Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall called “Alley Dance,” where they’re in an alley and it’s this virtuosic sort of “I-can-do-it-better” jazz number. And “Cabaret” is exquisite, tense, perfect.
8. Gay Bars
You never know what’s going to happen, and that’s a good thing. Some of my favorites are The Phoenix in the East Village; Holiday Cocktail Lounge, which isn’t a gay bar, per se, but it’s frequented by gay people; and Julius’ in the West Village. In the U.K., The Village, G-A-Y is fun, Heaven — those are my clubs.
9. Fire Island Pines
My first time to the Pines was in 2017 for a dance festival, and every time I’m there I’m meeting people who are innovators in their field, or are freethinkers, or just fascinating people who have interesting histories. It reminds me of Andy Warhol and his clique — it has that element of all these creatives coming together.
10. Clothing Basics
I moved to Boston when I was 18, and, as a young person, I was struggling to find a comfortable look for myself. I was railing against the extreme, collegiate, straight look of Bostonians, so I would buy all this garbage from H&M and just wear ridiculous, loud, obnoxious outfits. But it got to a point where I was like, “Oh my god, I’m exhausted and these clothes are all made of plastic.” So I turned to simpler clothing as a way to accept that the noise for me was on the inside. I’m not saying I don’t like to look noisy every once in a while, but I find comfort in easy, relaxed clothing like Levi’s, Converse, Adidas Sambas, plaid L.L. Bean button-downs and vintage T-shirts.
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