Hippies, Feminists, and Throuples, Oh My! James Whiteside’s New Ballet Tackles Modern Romance

The ABT principal also opens up about his 11-year relationship with "Drag Race" star Milk.

Pictued above: James Whiteside.

James Whiteside happens to be the longtime-boyfriend of Milk (AKA Daniel Donigan, from Drag Race Season 6 and All Stars 3), but he’s not romantic—though he sort of is, if you don’t take a traditional view of romance. But more on that later.

Connecticut-born James joined ABT (American Ballet Theatre) in 2012 as a soloist and was promoted to a principal the very next season. And now, he has choreographed his first ballet for the company, New American Romance, which plays October 23, 25, and 27 at NYC’s David Koch Theater. James’ open unromanticism infuses his creative vision for the ballet, which plays out to the melodies of Debussy’s "Suite Bergamasque" (including the famed “Clair de Lune”).

Erin Baiano

American Ballet Theatre, Vail Dance Festival, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

New American Romance.

James explains: "I'm a man who has seen his parents divorce a total of three times, with each other, and with others. Perhaps my romantic cynicism comes from that. I'm an unabashedly gay cisgender man, and Hollywood doesn't make rom-coms for us, only big, sad, gay tragedies...because maybe straight, white Hollywood thinks being gay is a tragedy. My life is fucking awesome. Sometimes, in places, for some people, it's not awesome. What is romance for them? Do we share the same feelings?"

To find out, I tracked him down for a verbal duet.

Hello, James. How did you develop this unorthodox ballet?

I wanted to explore essentially what my aversion to romance is. Because I don’t see myself as a romantic person. I’m such a fan of romantic ballets—the aesthetic. I thought this is the perfect opportunity to pay homage to ballet and also figure out what I might not like about romance.

When you see a romantic movie, do you start vomiting?

I’m pretty cynical when it comes to such things. They don’t make me violently ill, they make me apathetic, which is the worst way to be about art.

Erin Baiano

American Ballet Theatre, Vail Dance Festival, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

New American Romance.

Is your ballet basically a très-gay (anti-)romance?

Not at all. It’s not gay at all. It’s more a journey through what one’s idea of romance could be. It starts out quite tame in a way and the question marks start popping up as the dance goes along.

But you incorporate different types of romance in it?

Absolutely. The first movement contains a pas de deux between a man and a woman, which is what society has told me romance is.

The second movement is sort of a dyke march. I have three women going for solidarity and strength together. It’s sort of inspired by the women’s march. I think there’s romance in that sort of perseverance, solidarity, and camaraderie. It doesn’t always have to be that far-flung Hollywood romance we’ve come to know and some of us have come to love. I don’t think Hollywood romance is for me.

Erin Baiano

American Ballet Theatre, Vail Dance Festival, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

New American Romance.

The third movement begins with a man and a woman, then halfway through, another man is introduced into the picture and makes the relationship better, and it ends up being a throuple. It finds beauty in three, which is done terribly often in today’s society.

The fourth movement is a full-out hippie dippy lovefest and a celebration of beauty and humanity. By the way, in the future, I would like the Women's March movement to be gender neutral and have gender nonbinary dancers to be available. There are very few trans and nonbinary dancers in major ballet companies today. I’m talking about filling roles with everybody in mind.

You say you’re not romantic. Well, what would you call your relationship with Milk?

We’ve been together for 11 years. It’s not Paris-at-night romantic, but it is in that it’s such a long time in understanding each other, and the romance lies in patience and learning and there’s also great beauty to that. It comes in awareness and humor.

Courtesy James Whiteside

Milk (L) and James Whiteside (R).

How did you meet?

We met at a gay club in Boston through some mutual friends. I remember being really drunk and thinking he was really cute. But it took time. We didn’t get each other’s information when we met. He told me later that before we met, he had stalked me on MySpace. Then we met, and then didn’t talk for a bit, and eventually we talked on Facebook and scheduled a date. He was 20, I was 23. We went to a Starbucks in Boston and giggled for hours. For the second date, I said, “Want to get a vacuum?” We went vacuum-shopping! It was very unromantic, but perfect.

When did you become aware of Milk's drag persona and what did you think of it?

Dan actually didn’t do drag when we met. My friends and I all did it and he thought it was weird, but when he saw how much fun we were having—he wanted in and started experimenting about a year into our relationship. I love Dan’s drag. Duh. It’s everyone else that irritates me.

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