James Whiteside
James Whiteside
Ballet Zaida @balletzaida

Ballet Dancer, Drag Queen, Singer & Podcaster: Inside James Whiteside's Fearless, Authentic Life

by Meryl Cates
June 08, 2018, 4:58pm EDT

Star performers never seem to trudge into work, and yet it is an instrumental sample of JbDubs' "I Hate My Job," the electronic pop song with over 3.5 million views on YouTube, that bounces listeners from one episode to the next of James Whiteside's podcast about being a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. In this case, the 2012 hypnotic anthem about daily drama actually makes sense for Whiteside's podcast intro -- after all, he is the pop singer JbDubs, in addition to performing as Ühu Betch in the New York City-based drag troupe Dairy Queens. From someone who does not compartmentalize any aspects of his life and passions, we get a podcast that satisfyingly overshares.

The Stage Rightside with James Whiteside is one of the most unabashed glimpses behind the curtain of a major American ballet company. During the American Ballet Theatre's spring performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, Whiteside took listeners backstage as he dove into the ballet season, training an equal spotlight on dancers and those who do not necessarily perform, but are in the dance company. The editing is not heavy handed, and so the unpolished and candid nature of each episode shows contemporary performance life in a way that feels like documenting the ballet art form when it's not fully buttoned-up.

The strength of season three (which premiered May 18) is that it has finally confirmed its place among podcasts, especially in the dance and performance world.  

To add to the intimacy, he records from inside his dressing room. The sirens blaring outside and occasional tangents about the Met Opera cafeteria menu are all welcome. "There's something sacred about the principal hallway at the Met," Whiteside explains. "It was a destination for me. It was a goal to get myself into that principal hallway. To invite people who are visionaries, and my friends, and people that I look up to in the dance world into my sacred space is sort of special."

Whiteside, who is tall and sculpted and appears ready to strike a pose at any moment, started The Stage Rightside -- which he also loves for the title of a book, should he sit still long enough to write it -- in 2016. Rather than using the podcast as an extension of his social media accounts, he wanted to acknowledge the many other professions that make a company operate.

In each episode Whiteside comfortably hops between topics, whether it's insight into a grueling ballet or gender roles and homosexuality (like he did with Matthew Poppe, who has performed with the all-male company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), and then he'll also sing Madonna.

To kick off the new season, he had Kevin McKenzie, the company's artistic director—and his boss—on the show just before their spring gala in New York City (Whiteside performed in two premieres that evening and then sported Marc Jacobs Spring '18 along with his boyfriend, RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars alum Milk). McKenzie and Whiteside spoke about how we are unable to keep our private and professional personas separate anymore, and how that may impact the art form. Almost his mantra at this point, Whiteside stressed the immeasurable value of honesty and openness with audiences today.

He personally selects all of his guests, and they include influencers in a range of roles: makeup and wig artists, leading choreographers, costume designers, as well as ABT's company managers Kyle Pickles and Ashley Baer.

"Kyle and Ashley are wonderful people and nobody knows what they do, and they are wizards when it comes to wrangling these cats," Whiteside says. So, in June 2017 during Swan Lake week, he invited them onto an episode where they had a chance to articulate just how complicated it is to orchestrate the touring logistics of an entire company of dancers.

The podcast offers listeners a snapshot of real dance culture stripped right down to the dressing room chatter. "It's celebrating the fact that obviously the dance is our product," comments Kyle Pickles, "but there are so many different people that work to make that happen."

In one of the final episodes of last season, Whiteside spoke to ABT's executive director Kara Medoff Barnett, and sitting in Whiteside's dressing room—although likely not directly on the floor where he says he records most episodes—the topic turned to education. Barnett said she went to Harvard Business School. Whiteside, who came from Boston Ballet to American Ballet Theatre in 2012 as a soloist and was promoted to principal dancer in just 13 months, then cracked the line, "Yeah, I went to high school." His inclination towards easy laughter and a confident dose of self-awareness continually guides guests and listeners to a place where real topics can be discussed. "I love talking to the non-dancers on this podcast," he said in the episode. "We're in the same building all the time, but our lives could not be more different. I am in my pajamas all day doing spins in a dark room..." She joined in, "And I'm wearing heels and a business suit." Then they fist bumped.

The literal voice of the dancer, especially in classical ballet, has only recently emerged in more authentic and unscripted ways than in the past. "I think it's important as a dancer to take off the blinders," Whiteside comments. It's about exploring other personal strengths and revealing more of himself through his podcast and on social media.

His friend, the writer, choreographer and producer Jack Ferver, was a guest on season two in the conversation 'Uptown, Meet Jack Ferver.' Ferver also recently had Whiteside on his own podcast during performances of his downtown work Everything Is Imaginable where Whiteside portrayed Judy Garland.

"We're movers and thinkers and it's all part of the total read of us," Ferver explains. "The podcasts are something that not only provide communication and entertainment, but also a sense of relatability." So, while classical ballet is undeniably grounded in tradition, Ferver notes that Whiteside does what he wants—in drag, pop music, and at American Ballet Theatre—because it is his truth as a performer. "He understands inherently that this is all drag. That when you are stepping into a principal ballet role that is a kind of drag—that's work drag."

Whiteside is convinced these forms of transparency translate into new audiences for dance. He's been met by fans at the stage door who follow him on social media and are curious enough to buy a ticket. "We're showing them that we are people and have personalities outside of our art," he explains. "I'm sure, maybe, it's not acceptable for an older audience, but it's okay because we're getting young people interested."