Curtain call: Dancer leaps back into ‘The Nutcracker’ after last year’s injury

Isabella Boylston as Clara, the princess and James Whiteside as the Nutcracker.
Isabella Boylston as Clara, the princess and James Whiteside as the Nutcracker, the prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s adaptation of “The Nutcracker.”
(Marty Sohl / American Ballet Theatre)

During a matinee performance of “The Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts last year, James Whiteside had one of the most devastating experiences a dancer can have.

“I did a big running start to this jump sequence,” said Whiteside, “and as I pushed off my left leg, I felt and heard my patellar tendon disconnect.”

Whiteside was already battling with patellar tendinitis, a degeneration of a tendon over time in his knees, and the pandemic made it difficult to take classes and find places to rehearse. When restrictions were lifted and he finally did return to the theater, he admits he didn’t feel as strong despite all manner of physical therapy.

“When we came to California to do ‘The Nutcracker,’ my tendinitis was pretty much at an all time high,” said Whiteside.

He was scheduled for two performances in Costa Mesa when another dancer fell ill and a third performance was added to his itinerary.

“Sadly, that is the performance during which I ruptured my patellar tendon,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside made it through the first act, but it was during the second act that the injury occurred.

“I sort of crumbled like a bag of laundry,” said Whiteside. “In shock, I remained laying on the ground on my stomach as the music continued. Finally the music stopped and the curtain came down.”

Whiteside flew back to New York, and was in for reconstructive surgery two days later.

After a year of recovery, Whiteside returns to Segerstrom on Dec. 10 with the American Ballet Theatre to perform once again in “The Nutcracker.”

James Whiteside performs as Hilarion in "Giselle."
James Whiteside performs as Hilarion in “Giselle.”
(Courtesy of Rosalie O'Connor)

Whiteside joined American Ballet Theatre in 2012 and was named a principal dancer in 2013. He has choreographed for music videos, commercials, film and ballet and published his memoir, “Center Center,” with Penguin Random House in 2021. He also hosts a podcast, “The Stage Rightside with James Whiteside.” While his other projects kept him busy during recovery, he also struggled with the idea that he might not be able to dance at a performance level again. In some ways, that uncertainty was more excruciating than the physical pain.

“For much of the recovery process, you can’t imagine that you will ever be able to do what you did at the level that you like to do it again,” said Whiteside, “and quieting that very reasonable voice, frankly, is incredibly difficult. So you have to have the will of a warrior.”

The American Ballet Theater’s “The Nutcracker” runs at Segerstrom Hall from Dec. 9 until Dec. 18 and tickets start at $29. The show is under the artistic direction of ABT’s Kevin McKenzie and features the work of renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, sets and costumes by Tony winner Richard Hudson and the Pacific Symphony playing Tchaikovsky’s score. The annual performance has become a holiday tradition for Orange County and one that Whiteside looks forward to being a part of once again.

James Whiteside in Le Corsaire.
Ballet dancer and choreographer James Whiteside performs in “Le Corsaire.”
(Courtesy of Rosalie O'Connor)

“I love, love the holidays. I love everything from the music to the decorations to the spirit of giving,” said Whiteside. “‘The Nutcracker’ has played a role in my life since I was 10 years old. It is huge part of why I am a dancer. It is the first ballet I ever saw.”

Whiteside said he hopes that his story of recovery can help others feel inspired this holiday season.

“I want to be a part of that holiday lore. I want this to be something that people can use to make themselves feel stronger,” said Whiteside. “Because knowing that I am not alone in this makes me work harder and be more thoughtful and more grateful.”

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