by 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. n
American Ballet Theatre principal
to dance during a
time of grief.
“It wasn’t until I
could use my life in
my art that I began
to feel better.”