a word with james whiteside

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James Whiteside and Devon Teuscher in White Swan Pas de Deux, photo by Erin Baiano.

Last week I caught up with American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal, James Whiteside, between rehearsals at the Vail Dance Festival. James filled me in on his longtime love of ABT, his tap background, and his upcoming travels to Tokyo.

Kirsten: How long have you been at American Ballet Theater now?

James: This will be my fifth season with ABT.

K: How did you come to your decision to leave Boston Ballet?

J: Well I had always had my eye on ABT, ever since I was a teenager. It was the first big ballet company I saw and I was immediately obsessed.

After being in Boston for 10 years, I wanted to be inspired by new dancers, new work, new challenges, and New York City itself. So I auditioned on a day off during Nutcracker season in Boston, which is insane. Sometimes we do over 40 performances of Nutcracker, so I took the red-eye Fung Wah bus, back when that was still a thing, and I took ballet class with ABT. They offered me a soloist contract.

K: What was your transition into ABT like?

J: It was foreign and familiar all at once. The ballet world is very small, so I knew a lot of the dancers from- this, that, and the other- from guest performances, from summer programs, and stuff. But the rep at ABT is completely different from the rep at Boston. We did a lot of Balanchine, a lot of neoclassical work, a lot of contemporary work [at Boston Ballet]. ABT does big classics. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, etc. So I had to learn all of ABT’s rep in an extremely short time, and I did an obscene amount of debuts that first year. Then I was promoted to Principal in the Fall.

K: Do you feel like you’ve adjusted to New York life?

J: I’m from Fairfield, Connecticut, so I spent a lot of time in the city as a kid, going to Broadway Dance Center, seeing Broadway shows with my dance teachers. I’ve had my heart close to New York City for a long time. So it feels more like a homecoming.

K: So now your address just matches your…

J: …my soul.

K: [Laughs] Now, this isn’t your first time in Vail.

J: This is my third year in Vail. My first year I only did one ballet. Last year I did a lot, this year I’m doing a lot, and I’m coming back next year.

K: So it just progresses more and more as you keep coming back?

J: Yeah, they make you work! Damn! It’s really, really ambitious. Incredibly ambitious. In a way, it feels like our New York season: putting together a large amount of things in a short amount of time. It’s crazy, this festival has gained so much visibility in the dance world. It’s become the dance festival.

K: What keeps you coming back to the Vail Dance Festival?

J: My favorite thing about this festival is the location, the setting, the nature.

K: It really is beautiful. Has the altitude been an adjustment?

J: Oh, of course. Everything is harder here, without a doubt.

K: So what are you performing in Vail this year?

J: I have danced the White Swan Pas de Deux with fellow ABT Principal Devon Teuscher. I have also danced Michelle Dorrance’s 1-2-3-4-5-6, where I had to do a lot of tapping, so that was fun. I tapped as a teenager, so it was nice to revisit it. I did a new ballet [Farewell] by Matthew Neenan on Saturday night. I danced with an old colleague of mine, Misa Kuranaga. We danced together a lot in Boston. It was so nice to dance with her again, she’s an extraordinary dancer.

I’ll be dancing in the new Michelle Dorrance ballet- I keep calling it a ballet, but it’s a dance. [Laughs] I don’t know what it’s called, but it is epic, and ambitious and daring and I just can’t believe we’re doing it tonight. I’m a little stressed out.

K: [Laughs] That’s kind what the festival is about though, right?

J: Amen to that! It all will come together, I know it will.

K: Definitely will. So that’s a big piece…

J: Yeah, it’s about 30 minutes long. It’s a big cast from all different backgrounds. We’re tapping, we’re…not tapping.

K: [Laughs] All of the in between…

J: Yes. [Laughs]

K: So what’s up next after Vail?

J: My summer has been completely booked with festivals and galas. It’s been exceptionally fun. It’s been like a tour- I feel like I’m on a rock concert tour. I’ve been a lot of places, I’m going a lot of places.

The next stops on my “summer gig tour” are Sun Valley, Idaho, which has a similar beauty to this, actually. And Tokyo.

K: No big deal. “Oh yeah, Toyko.”

J: Oh yeah, Toyko. [Laughs]

K: Have you been before?

J: I’ve been to Toyko before, yeah. It’s just so strange and wonderful. Just so different.

K: Dream destination for me.

J: And then I have my Fall season with American Ballet Theater. I have some personal projects in the works, which if you follow me on my various socials, you’ll learn of.

K: So back up for a second, though, what are you going to be doing in Tokyo?

J: In Tokyo, I am choreographing and dancing in a Disney ballet DVD release of Beauty and the Beast.

K: What? Stop! That’s awesome.

J: Yeah, it’ll be Misa and me.

K: That’s really exciting. And what are you doing in Sun Valley?

J: In Sun Valley I’m dancing [George] Balanchine’s Rubies Pas de Deux with Tiler Peck. I’m also doing a solo I created to Louis Armstrong’s You Rascal You, which I made a short film for years ago that people really liked. The premise is that I have killed my wife’s lover. I’m really excited about it, I’m dancing around in the streets. You can view it on Youtube.*

K: Great! Are you looking forward to getting back to New York after that?

J: Yes. But I actually haven’t had a day off since June, so next week from Wednesday to Wednesday, I’ll be in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

K: Ah, I love Provincetown! So beautiful.

Thank you for chatting with me, James! Enjoy some well deserved rest in P-town.

*Editor’s note: I watched James’ You Rascal You video immediately after transcribing this interview and- oh my goodness- go watch it right now. Please.

a word with isabella boylston

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In between rehearsals at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, I sat down for a chat with American Ballet Theater (ABT) Principal Isabella Boylston. On the grassy lawn seating that will fill with eager patrons later this evening, this busy ballerina filled me in on life in New York, her experience with the Vail Dance Festival and what’s up next.

Kirsten: You’re originally from Sun Valley, Idaho. How long have you been living in New York?

Isabella: I moved to New York in 2005 to join the Studio Company, so that’s 12 years.

K: So do you feel like you’re a New Yorker now?

I: Oh fully, yeah. Definitely a New Yorker. Although I also grew up in Colorado, so I miss nature and trees…

K: This is like coming home then!

I: Totally, it feels like a homecoming.

K: And this is not your first time in Vail, right?

I: No, I’ve been at the Vail Dance Festival for the past 5 summers, and last year I was actually the Artist In Residence.

K: Very cool. What comes along with being Artist In Residence?

I: Honestly, just a lot of performing. [laughs]

At this point my eyes widen and I shoot her my crazy-person-face.

K: Even more performing than you’re doing here this year?

Isabella laughs and nods like she can’t believe it either.

I: Yes, even more performing. It’s an honor to be featured in that way.

K: Definitely. What are you performing at this year’s Vail Dance Festival?

I: I’m doing [August Bournonville’s] Flower Festival with Jeff [Cirio] and [Christopher Wheeldon’s] This Bitter Earth pas with Calvin [Royal]. Bitter Earth is a pretty poignant piece. I like to think of it as a reflective piece almost looking back on past events that were difficult for me, maybe challenges in love, that kind of thing. Every time I do it, it feels a little different just based on where I am in life. We’ve always been lucky enough to perform it with Kate Davis singing live, which totally enhances the mood. She has this crystal clear, transcendent voice and it always feels very emotive to do it with her.

K: So inspiring. And how has it been working with Jeff and Calvin?

I: Oh, just great. I know them both so well, we are all close friends. Calvin and I had never danced together until Vail last year when we did Bitter Earth for the first time; Jeff and I just did La Fille together last season.

K: So besides the homey feeling you get coming back to Colorado, what excites you about the Vail Dance Festival?

I: I definitely think one of the highlights is getting coached by Heather [Watts] and Damian [Woetzel]. They are so nurturing and I always leave with a lot of fresh ideas. And of course it’s super inspiring to be around all of these insanely talented dancers. It kind of feels like a family because a lot of us return year after year, so it’s like a little reunion.

K: Aw! That’s really sweet. So what’s up next for you this summer?

I: Oh! I’m actually putting on my own little festival in my hometown, Sun Valley, Idaho. There’s a beautiful amphitheater there, and I have been really inspired by everything Damian has done here in Vail. I mean, it’s much smaller scale, it’s just two performances…

K: But you’ve gotta start somewhere!

I: You’ve gotta start somewhere. I have incredible dancers coming, a lot of them from here actually. I just picked pieces that I really like and we have a lot of live music, too. Then we’re also doing a free education day, enrolling up to 200 kids in free dance classes, which is really fun.

K: I love that! Bringing affordable dance education to kids is so important.

I: So important. I mean, I wouldn’t be here without scholarships.

K: It’s also a great way to open people up to ballet in a new way, especially those who might not think ballet is accessible to them.

I: Yeah! Exactly. So in between Vail and my festival in Idaho, I’ll be traveling to Argentina to do a couple of guestings there.

I pause. Another wide-eyed look.

K: No big deal. Just hopping over to Argentina real quick.

I: [laughs] I know, I know, no big deal. I’m so busy this summer.

K: When do you get time off?

I: After my show in Sun Valley I’ll have a week off before starting back at ABT in September. It’s whirlwind summer.

K: Sounds like it! Hopefully you have a little time to relax while you’re here?

I: A little, yeah. Barton [Cowperthwaite] and I hiked the Booth Falls Trail a few days ago, it was so beautiful. But it was also a workout, ha! You should do it though, it was really fun.

Thank you so much, Isabella, for the chat and the hiking recommendation- I will definitely be carving out time to take on Booth Falls, so expect a full report soon.

*Editor’s note: I hiked Booth Falls. I huffed. I puffed. I conquered!