American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside is known for more than just his uber-charismatic presence on the ballet stage: He doubles as both the drag queen Ühu Betch and the pop star JbDubs. Whiteside's newest musical release, titled WTF, came out last week, and is for sure his most ballet-filled song to date. Both the lyrics and the choreography are jam-packed with bunhead references, from the Rose Adagio to Haglund's Heel to a framed portrait of George Balanchine. Not to mention the fact that he and his four backup dancers (Matthew Poppe, Douane Gosa, Maxfield Haynes and Gianni Goffredo) absolutely kill it in pointe shoes.
Whiteside released the video on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. And beyond showing off his impressive quadruple pirouette into a double tour (see 3:22), Whiteside uses WTF to shine a light on the questions surrounding gender, sexuality and harassment that have been circling the ballet world for the past two years. Whiteside's main message, "What the what," shows that he's flummoxed, and trying to make sense of it all. Yet his words also act as a form of protest against the people who have held him back, or questioned his unapologetic sense of self. (An explicit version of WTF, available on Spotify and iTunes, references Marcelo Gomes, Chase Finlay, Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, male dancers who have been involved in cases of sexual misconduct in the midst of the #MeToo movement.)
The most prominent example of this is Whiteside's pushback against Sergei Polunin's recent homophobic and sexist outbursts. If being partnered by men while on pointe doesn't send enough of a message, then Whiteside's lyrics make things crystal clear. "Sergei Polunin is a bully and a coward," he sings. Towards the end of the video, Whiteside walks defiantly toward the camera while a recorded clip of Polunin speaking plays: "Personally I don't want to see men onstage not being a man." In another section, Whiteside calls out writers, naming former New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay and anonymous ballet blogger Haglund's Heel. He sings, "I will not be influenced by Alastair Macaulay. Haglund is fresh by the names that she calls me. Look at my career and look at all the ones that fought me." Whiteside has been celebrated for redefining the idea of the principal male dancer, but that progress has not come without criticism; in an interview with Dance Magazine last year he said, "I can't imagine someone like me existing when I was a kid." Here, Whiteside uses his musical platform to showcase his most honest and unapologetic self.