It was nearly a year ago, and James Whiteside was doing what most ballet dancers do in December: performing “The Nutcracker.” But moments after taking off for a double assemblé to the left — a jump in which the legs assemble, or meet in the air — things went terribly wrong.
“I’m thinking to myself, I’m going to jump into the sky right now, I’m going to crush this,” Whiteside, a principal with American Ballet Theater, said. “I pushed off, and I kicked my leg up in the air and I just felt the tendon completely pop off. I squealed. I’ve never done that in my life, but I made an audible yelp, and I crumbled to the ground while turning in the air.”
He remembers lying face down while holding his head in his hands. His partner, Isabella Boylston, said the scene was traumatic: “I’ve seen terrible injuries happen onstage in my career, but I’ve never seen anything like this where they had to actually stop the show and bring in the curtain.”
Everyone was convinced he had smashed his face, but he knew what he had done: ruptured his left patellar tendon.
Whiteside, 38, has been dealing with tendon pain in both knees since he was a teenager, but during the 2021 fall season leading up to “The Nutcracker” performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, Calif., the pain had become severe. He couldn’t sit down for more than five minutes without having to stand up and stretch. He couldn’t sleep.
“I couldn’t use my legs to get out of a chair,” he said in one of several interviews about the injury. “I would have to push up on my arm, straighten my knees and then cantilever up,” he continued. “But then you know, with the adrenaline of performance, injuries sort of fade away.”
Coming out of the pandemic shutdown, he was dealing with muscle atrophy. His body had not yet adjusted to being back to work full time. “I think the loss of strength perhaps made the sort of deterioration of my tendon worse,” he said. “It also could be true that my tendons thought they were done. Like my body could have thought it retired, but I didn’t.”
After the injury — and a hotel evening of In-N-Out burgers, red wine and a screening of “My Cousin Vinny” with his boyfriend and Boylston and her husband — he flew back to New York to undergo reconstructive surgery. At the time, his prognosis wasn’t exactly clear; early on, he said, he was “hoping to be moving in six months in a way that isn’t depressing.”
From the start, Whiteside has been unusually candid about his experience, taking to social media to discuss his injury and rehabilitation. Many dancers remain guarded about injuries — willing to talk about them only after they have recovered — but Whiteside welcomed the public into his world, offering rare transparency about the private life of a dancer.
Being open about his recovery has helped ward off depression, too, especially because he was so limited in doing what a dancer does: move. Until around a week after surgery, he couldn’t bend his knee at all. “Not even five degrees,” he said.
He worked with a machine that helped him bend and straighten his knee mechanically. It’s been a slow road. Whiteside has never experienced an injury of this magnitude. (His surgeon estimated his recovery time between 8 to 12 months from surgery.) And even though he isn’t in prime shape, he is making impressive progress. On Oct. 22, he returned to the stage in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Whipped Cream” as Prince Coffee opposite Boylston’s Princess Tea Flower. He looked thrilled to be in his happy place: onstage.
“This is my favorite thing about what I do,” he said. “I love performing. I love the ritual, I love the community. And I’m reminded of that on days like Saturday, where I’m out there with Bella and just like sort of giggling through it.”
While the role is more forgiving than most in his repertory, there were challenges. “Even halfway through the rehearsal period, I wasn’t sure,” Whiteside said. “Each week I would do a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. I would try a single tour in rehearsal and be like, safe, like, OK, I did it.”
In ballet, a tour en l’air is a jump with a turn in the air; the more turns there are, the more demanding it becomes. “A couple of weeks later I was like, alright, today’s the day,” he said. “I’m going to try a double tour.”
Jumping remains a challenge; and regaining power has been difficult. “My tendon that severed feels different,” he said. “It feels like a foreign entity. Like I’ve been returned from a U.F.O., and I’m just a little different.”
And Whiteside knows he “is nowhere near out of the woods,” he said. “I can do what I need to do, but I feel like I cannot be embarrassing. Just for my soul. I don’t need to be the best. I’ve never been the best. I need to be able to put out a product that I can be proud of.”
He has come far in 10 months. “But I still look at a ballet like ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle,’ and I’m like, I have to do 24 entrechat sixes,” he said, referring to a virtuosic jump with rapid, crisscrossing feet. “I can barely get through a single double tour. How am I going to do this? And that’s really unpleasant, frankly.”
Exposing himself and his feelings doesn’t come naturally to Whiteside, but writing a book, “Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-Memoir of a Boy in Ballet” (2021), which chronicled his chaotic childhood and his experiences coming out, has changed him, he said.
But it’s still difficult for Whiteside to open up about his life to his closest friends. “I feel very able to be vulnerable when it has work attached to it,” he said. “But in my personal life, with my friends, with my family, with my boyfriend, it’s really hard to get me to talk about things. And I don’t know why that is. I’m learning that it is problematic.”
Boylston said Whiteside tries to make it seem like he’s fine even when he isn’t. After the “Nutcracker,” she said, “we were in his dressing room and he was trying to figure out the next steps — surgery and how to get back to New York — he just said, ‘What if this is the end?’ It broke my heart. Because it’s every dancer’s worst nightmare.”
If anything, Boylston said, the injury might prolong his career. “I think it’s going to end up being a good thing for his body in the long run that he was forced to address it,” she said. “Now he’s got a good, new strong knee.”
But Whiteside is still living with what he sees as the worst part of the injury: a sense of uncertainty. “I’m always thinking about it — always,” he said. “Every movie I see, every TV show I watch, every dinner, I’m thinking about feeling normal. Is this is how it’s supposed to feel? And I hate that. I like to be in control.”
He’s been able to be creative — and in control — in other ways during his time off the stage. He has choreographed dances and even written a play, which is he described as a comedy. “It’s a funeral for my dance career,” he said. “And I’m delivering the eulogy.”
He is also writing a young adult novel about “The Nutcracker,” with a gay twist. And he’s composed a song aptly titled, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”
His next dancing challenge?
“I’m getting back on ‘The Nutcracker’ horse,” he said. “I’m trying. That’s hard-core. I’ve had talks with myself, with Isabella, with my boyfriend, with my therapist, and I asked for one show with Isabella. I’m going to do everything I can to physically be ready for that.”
It will be the same place, the same ballet. The only thing that might change is the step that sent him crashing to the floor. “I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “There’s a part of me that’s like, I’m going to do it. There’s also a part of me that’s like, but why? Either way, it’s one of the hardest things in our repertoire. And there’s a part of me that thinks if I can get back on that stallion, I’ll be able to attack anything.”