Ballet Stars

James Whiteside on His Upcoming Pop Collaboration With Isabella Boylston and Singer Rozzi

James Whiteside and Isabella Boylston. Courtesy In the Lights PR.

"Cindies" fans, this one's for you. February 9-10, American Ballet Theatre's James Whiteside and Isabella Boylston are collaborating with pop singer Rozzi to put on a full-length show titled When I Think Of You at The Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum, Idaho. Set to Rozzi's debut album Bad Together, performed live by the singer and her band, the show features choreography by Whiteside, Boylston, ABT's Gemma Bond and commercial dancer Ai Shimatsu with dancing by Whiteside, Boylston and ABT soloist Calvin Royal III.

Whiteside is no stranger to pop music. The principal dancer doubles as singer/songwriter JbDubs, known for choreographing and producing his own wild music videos and performances. We touched base with Whiteside to hear all about how When I Think of You came to be, what this unique show will look like, and how he balances his musical career with his work at ABT.


How did you become familiar with Rozzi's music?

It was actually through Isabella. Rozzi found her on Instagram and asked her to dance in a music video for a song called Mad Man that should be released later this month, and Bella asked me to choreograph the piece. Bella had me listen to the song and I loved it, it's just excellent pop vocal music. That girl's got pipes for sure.

What was the process of choreographing the music video like?

I wanted to come up with something that would make Bella feel powerful and feminine. I obviously know Isabella really well and know some of her favorite steps, so I'm really excited for people to see it when it comes out.

How did the idea for this show come about?

Isabella and Rozzi got along so well that they started talking about doing a show together. Rozzi's debut album came out at the end of 2018, so we thought it would be a really good time to do some cross promotion and make something really different and special. So essentially this show, called When I Think of You, is an abstract narrative about relationships, and our relationships to music and dance and art as therapy. Bella talked to the Argyros theater in Idaho, it's a new theater there near her hometown, and they agreed to produce it.

What's your role in the show?

Bella asked me to choreograph a number of pieces for it, so I've choreographed Mad Man, which is a solo for Isabella, and I'm choreographing a solo for Calvin Royal titled Joshua Tree, which is wistful and sad and nostalgic. And I'm co-choreographing a piece with Isabella called Never Over You, which is a classical pas de deux with pointe shoes, and then another duet for me and Bella in sneakers, which is more of a popular dance number to a song called 66 Days. It's about missing someone that you'd seen a lot.

How is the show structured?

It's in two acts. We're building it on the theme of Rozzi's album, which is generated around a breakup. So we wanted the show to have a feel of a relationship's timeline. Isabella and Calvin and I play different characters in this narrative, song to song. There are some songs where we're all playing Rozzi's character, and there songs where one of us is playing her lover. Each number is built with a transition so there can be time for costume and shoe changes, because it goes seamlessly from pointe shoe numbers to street numbers to numbers with high heels.

What are rehearsals like?

Rozzi is based in Los Angeles, so it's been hard because we're trying to coordinate with the live versions of the songs. She's been recording herself with her band, so we're actually rehearsing to her live rehearsals with her band to get a sense of what it will be like. They're definitely different than her studio recorded vocals.You've choreographed a number of music videos to your own pop songs.

What does it feel like to do that kind of work for someone else's vision?

I almost prefer choreographing to someone else's music, because when I'm making the dances to my own music I am constantly criticizing my work. But Rozzi is a really talented vocalist and her producers and team are really slick, so it's been fun exploring the nuances of her music through movement.

What's it like for you and your ABT colleagues to work on outside projects like this together? Does it affect your work relationships when you're back in the studio?

All of these side projects bring us closer together and make us work together much better. All of these shared experiences are going directly into our performances. You can hopefully see that in our relationships onstage, and see that it's real, even though we may be playing a character. The foundation of the emotion is real.

How do you balance your interest in pop music and commercial choreography with your career at ABT?

Commercial choreography interests me greatly because I have a very classical background but I also trained in jazz and tap and acrobatics. So it's a marriage of my past and my present. I think I have an understanding of what commercial dance is to a point, and I think that the added classical element is interesting for viewers and and looks different than perhaps what is overdone at the moment. I'm hoping it's a welcome change.

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