American Ballet Theatre principal dancer James Whiteside wrote his memoir, “Center Center,” like no one was watching.
“I wrote it almost thinking nobody would ever read it. It was experimental and sort of a little journal for myself to work out some feelings,” he says. “And now I’m realizing that people are gonna read it; I’m freaking out. I’m really nervous because it’s really exposing.”
“Center Center” was released last week with a launch event at the Strand bookstore, a move that brought Whiteside, who lived in the East Village when he first moved to New York as a young dancer, back full circle to his roots. In his book, Whiteside varies his narrative approach freely (one piece is written as a screenplay) and he recounts the stories that most shaped his life and career: his coming-out story, the friendships that defined his early 20s, his ballet career, losing his mother to cancer in 2016. What he doesn’t do is tell his story conventionally, as a simple chronology from beginning to end — “because I’m 36 years old and that felt absurd,” he says.
His inspiration was Roald Dahl’s “Boy,” an autobiographical book of stories about childhood and schooling. Whiteside also channels a little bit of Lewis Carroll and David Sedaris. “There are a lot of aspects in my stories that feel sort of ‘Alice in Wonderland’-y; they have that sort of nonsensical absurdist feel — but make it mature, like R-rated,” Whiteside describes. “It’s a strange collection. It’s not your standard ballet memoir.”
Although he was nervous ahead of the book’s release, Whiteside did share one of the essays with his father. “It really scared me because it’s brutally honest and paints everybody in a very realistic light,” he says. “There are no real heroes in the story. There are just people that change and make good decisions and make bad decisions.”
He’d been mulling the idea of writing a memoir for more than 10 years and knew from the beginning what he would title it: “Center Center.” “Before I even knew what the book was, I just loved the sound of it,” he says. In late 2019, Whiteside spent a week in Rhinecliff, N.Y., where he began working on sample chapters. He shared the project with an editor at Penguin, who connected him with a few literary agents. “I found one that I really vibed with and started working with her to build a proper proposal to pitch back to Penguin to see if they would buy it,” he says. “And they bought it pretty much right away. I couldn’t believe it. I was shook, as the kids say.”
Whiteside recently recorded the audiobook for “Center Center,” which required him to revisit and connect with his stories in a new way. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he says. “I have never had to sit and read aloud for seven hours a day and inject the stories with a heart and emotion and levity and gravitas. I was so stressed out.”
“It was almost like I was reading someone else’s story,” he adds. “And of course everyone’s asking me like, oh, do you have a ghostwriter? I’m like, hell no, I wanted to try to do this. If it’s s—ty, it’s my fault.”
In addition to preparing for the book’s release, Whiteside has spent the past year making music — under his stage name JbDubs — and choreographing. “I’ve made a lot of music this past year that I don’t know if I’ll ever release,” he says. “It was all just sort of to fill a void of creative energy,” he says.
This past summer Whiteside’s choreography work has been released digitally, including his ballet “City of Women”, which premiered during ABT’s Summer Celebration, and “Marilyn’s Funeral” for the Juilliard School. He also created a new piece featuring dancers from ABT and NYCB (including himself), which premiered during the Vail Dance Festival.
“I understand that I can’t dance forever,” says Whiteside, who also performs drag as part of the collective known as the Dairy Queens. “And so I want to make sure that I have seeds sewn,” he adds. “And those seeds that really interest me are writing and choreographing and making music.”