James Whiteside Is Reimagining What Classical Dance Can Be

“There needs to be queer representation in ballet—not as the villain but as the lead.”


2(x)ist briefs. Rick Owens boots. PHOTO: MARIO SORRENTI

As a principal at New York’s American Ballet Theatre, James Whiteside gets to grace one of the dance world’s most rarefied stages. But for Whiteside, 39, the real opportunity lies in what he does with that platform. That has involved immersing himself in an array of other creative endeavors, from choreography, writing, and composing to drag to pop music. This constellation of projects, though, has less to do with demonstrating his own prodigious multi-hyphenate multitalents—of which there are many—and more to do with expanding the kinds of stories and identities that are represented in the realm of classical dance.

Below, the Harper’s Bazaar 2023 Icon explains how he hopes to make ballet more inclusive. To read more from our 2023 Icons issue, including cover stories with Kendall Jenner, Doja Cat, and Paul Mescal, click here.

I created my drag persona, Ühu Betch, and my pop-star alter ego, JbDubs, out of necessity. As a male principal dancer, I play fairy-tale princes: Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Prince Albrecht in Giselle, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty. They’re all heterosexuals. There isn’t a classical ballet with an out gay protagonist, only Disney-style queer-adjacent villains. So drag is my way of letting off steam.

My friends and I used to film each other doing little living-room drag performances. It was very innocent and just pure fun. And then later, we’d go out and terrorize clubs as a drag-queen group called the Dairy Queens. I’m named after Yoo-hoo, the chocolate-milk drink.

My music practice came from just tinkering on my computer, but people seem to really connect with the camp and kitsch of it all. In 2011, I had a song called “I Hate My Job” go viral. I’ll never forget my boss at the time, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen, saying to me in rehearsal, “I hope you don’t hate your job, but I really like your music video.” That was the first time my worlds crossed over.

“I’m desperate to see queer stories being told in the language of classical ballet.”

I’d feared retaliation in my ballet career for being so irreverent and subversive. Back then, the only access we had to prima ballerinas and danseurs was onstage. We didn’t get to know the real people. With Instagram and TikTok, there’s been a paradigm shift in the way we tell our stories. I’m not providing my audiences with what I want them to think I am. I am absolutely as I appear to be on the internet.

I’m adapting my essay collection, Center Center, into a one-man show in which I give the eulogy for my dance career. As dancers, we can only dance as long as our bodies allow. So it’s about moving on and losing something very dear to you, all told through a very campy 1980s funeral.

There needs to be queer representation in ballet—not as the villain but as the lead. I’m desperate to see queer stories being told in the language of classical ballet. If no one’s going to make that ballet for me to dance, then I will make it for others to dance.

I recently codirected my first short film, Daytripper, a gay love story set at my favorite place on earth, Fire Island Pines, and told through various dances. Sometimes I think I might spread myself too thin creatively, but I can’t seem to help myself. I like having an idea and working really hard to make it happen. And that doesn’t mean they’ll all be good ideas. A lot of them are garbage. But that’s part of the joy of creating.

This interview and photo shoot were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Hair: Tomo Jidai for Oribe; makeup: Frank B for LoveSeen; manicures: Honey for UN/DN Laqr; production: Katie Fash and Layla Néméjanski; set design: Philipp Haemmerle