Why I Dance: James Whiteside
My mother passed away during this past ABT Met Season. It spurred changes in me and my art that I could not have foreseen. I used to tell people that I dance simply because the music obliges me to. As though I'm compelled by some unseen force, like a man possessed. Perhaps that's the reason I started dancing, but the reason I continue is an entirely different matter.
I had never lost anyone truly close to me before. My mother died of a panoply of cancer. The degeneration of a wildly vital woman was something I will not soon forget. My director and coach, Kevin McKenzie, had often asked me to recall feelings of loss, and apply it to my portrayals. But before this year, death wasn't a part of my personal reality, and I couldn't draw from such an experience.
Every Sunday during ABT's spring season, I would take the train to Connecticut, and my father would pick me up and drive me to visit my mother. I remember being in the middle of Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, dancing his sensitive and brutal “Chamber Symphony," when I witnessed a real turn in my mother's health. She became emaciated and incoherent, but instead of complaining, went to a peaceful and loving state of mind, like that of a docile child. “Chamber Symphony" is based on Shostakovich's life, which was riddled with oppression and loss. This obviously has nothing to do with a dying mother, but I imagine the pain of losing someone you love so much being somewhat universal, so I used it. I walked through the corps and shrank in posture in a descending crescendo of shuffling steps. I imagined I was a doomed man scuttling down the neon hallways of some forgotten hospital ward, dragging his IV along like a macabre pet on a walk.
The tears came. But I'm not one to sit and cry; it wasn't until I could use my life in my art that I began to feel better. Not only through the movement, but the music as well.
I thought this essay would be bubbly, would have my bite and humor. But sometimes real life creeps in, making even a clown into a somber man. I may have started dancing because the music made something in me feel right, accepted and beautiful when nothing else could, but I continue dancing because life keeps happening all around me: love, loss, laughter, tears, parties, racism, homophobia, war. And since I haven't yet figured out how to feel things in a traditional way, this art will have to be the window through which my vital madness escapes.
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
Chiara Valle is just one of many dancers heading back to the studio this fall as companies ramp up for the season. But her journey back has been far more difficult than most.
Valle has been a trainee at The Washington Ballet since 2016, starting at the same time as artistic director Julie Kent. But only a few months into her first season there, she started experiencing excruciating pain high up in her femur. "It felt like someone was stabbing me 24/7," she says. Sometimes at night, the pain got so bad that her roommates would bring her dinner to the bathtub.
Michele Byrd-McPhee's uncle was a DJ for the local black radio station in Philadelphia, where she was born. As a kid she was always dancing to the latest music, including a new form of powerful poetry laid over pulsing beats that was the beginning of what we now call hip hop.
Byrd-McPhee became enamored of the form and went on to a career as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, eventually founding the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival and directing the New York City chapter of Everybody Dance Now!. Over the decades, she has experienced hip hop's growth from its roots in the black community into a global phenomenon—a trajectory she views with both pride and caution.
On one hand, the popularity of hip hop has "made a global impact," says Byrd-McPhee. "It's provided a voice for so many people around the world." The downside is "it's used globally in ways that the people who made the culture don't benefit from it."