In classical ballet, it's considered a milestone when a ballerina dances their first soloist role without the uniform corps de ballet. But for Chase Johnsey, the most profound moment of his career was finally being able to blend in amidst a sea of corps dancers. This month, Johnsey performed three female roles in the English National Ballet's production of Sleeping Beauty, making him the first male ballet dancer to ever perform a female role with a professional company.
Johnsey, who identifies as gender fluid but uses male pronouns, danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo — aka "the Trocks" — an all-male comedic ballet company that performs in drag, for 14 years before publicly resigning at the start of this year. While the Trocks' performances are widely viewed as a celebration of gender, the company's shows are also meant to be laughed at, and the grown men wearing tutus, teetering around in pointe shoes, are the punchlines. Johnsey says that he was harassed and discriminated against for wanting to express femininity, and while an independent investigation into the company did not substantiate his claims, his resignation sparked a larger discussion about gender politics within dance.
As fate would have it, Johnsey got a call from Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of English National Ballet, who wanted him to come take classes with her company. After a week, she told Johnsey she "saw him as a ballerina," and wanted him to be in a production, he recalls. "I never thought that any company would be willing to take the risk — because, you know, it is a huge risk and controversial thing," he says.
Johnsey's debut as a lady of the court and marchioness garnered media attention, but critics had trouble pointing him out in the scenes. "That goes to show, me and the girls we all work together," he says. "Of course, I’ve had to work on my body to feminize myself, but in the end it doesn’t matter the gender, because we're all dancing together."
Johnsey spoke with Refinery29 about gender, ballet, and his hopes for the future of the art.
How did your training change when you started preparing for Sleeping Beauty?
"I took class everyday with the girls, and it was a huge learning experience. I had to learn a lot about pointe work, and the subtleties, the transitions, staying over the box [of the pointe shoe], and straightening your legs more. They definitely helped me a lot in ballet class, and then the rehearsal process was just natural.
"They didn’t try to make me dance more feminine, they just wanted me to dance how I dance. They focused on us being together, and the arms together, but the words 'masculine' and 'feminine' were never used in the rehearsals with me. They wanted me to be me for who I was, and that was liberating and surprising. In the Trocks, often they wanted us to butch it up. I hated that, because I’m naturally not that."
I think ballet is possibility, ballet is not woman. A great ballerina is able to take a 200-year-old ballet and breathe new life into it. Who knows who’s going to have that talent?
Lots of choreographers talk about making gender-fluid movement, or work that doesn't have delineated gender roles, as a way to address gender issues. But is that enough in your opinion?
"I think there needs to be an openness for every single person. This is why I don’t want to make my own company, because I don’t want to group all of the gender fluid, cross-gender, trans people in one group — that's not liberation for me, that's grouping ourselves off and isolating ourselves. What needs to happen is an understanding that we are artists, and if we're capable of doing something, we should be able to do it.
"I’m able to dance ballerina roles, just like in the opera there are countertenors — they're able to do it and [are] applauded for it. I think in the ballet world, in the situations where you’re good enough to do it, even if your personal business is different from the norm, you should be able to do it. That's how you affect everybody positively, even if you do meet the norms."
"Ballet is very traditional and stagnating like crazy. If they would address these gender issues, which young people are way more open to and can relate to, then that’s when art is actually making a comment on present time. Maybe if it reflects the current time then people are going to want to go see it. His comment from his perspective and experience is probably true in his eyes. But he's not looking at it from where we are in this current time. If this is how the future generation is speaking, then he’s gonna have to learn how to be more open-minded."
The old Balanchine quote, "Ballet is woman," gets brought up a lot. If you had the chance to re-write that quote today, what would you say?
"That goes back to Wendy Whelan's quote in the Times about me taking away jobs from women who are already in a super competitive environment. In reality, I'm not taking anybody's job. I'm liberating [ballet], and I’m opening it up to all gender roles. So, I think ballet is possibility, ballet is not woman. A great ballerina is able to take a 200-year-old ballet and breathe new life into it. Who knows who’s going to have that talent?
"What I’m doing comes at a huge price. You try not to let [negativity] get to you, but it does. The thing is, I know that I have a place in the dance world, so I’m able to be strong enough to take the blows, and to slowly change people's minds. The challenge now is that I have a sense of duty. I may never dance principal roles ever again, but I know these little baby steps are going to help those 17 and 18-year-old trans students who message me on Instagram. I sort of planted the seed, and I don't know how much further I can take it, but at least I’ve made a contribution to the dance world."