Breaking Stereotypes

Chase Johnsey Spills About Performing a Woman's Role With English National Ballet

Chase Johnsey quietly made modern ballet history when he performed as part of the women's ensemble in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Elliot Franks, Courtesy In the Lights PR

Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?

But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.


We caught up with Johnsey to find out how it happened.

How he found his way to English National Ballet

Chase Johnsey received critical acclaim for his interpretations of traditionally female roles at Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Photo courtesy Johnsey

I had resigned from Trockadero. I assumed my dancing career was over, because I'm a ballerina and there's only one Trockadero. A month went by, and I got a random email from Tamara Rojo asking if I wanted to take class. I don't even know how she got my email! I went and took class for a week, and then we had a meeting. She said she liked the way I danced, and that she sees me as a ballerina and would love to have me in Sleeping Beauty. She wanted to help me take a small step towards being seen as a ballerina.

On being himself in the studio and onstage

One of the first things they told me was to be sincere. I had hidden behind my Trocks persona for so long; I was doing an homage to great ballerinas, and I was sort of impersonating one. When I got to ENB, they wanted me to be myself. Not more masculine or more feminine—they wanted me to be honest. It was liberating, but an artistic struggle.

Re-learning technique from a woman's perspective

I take class with the girls en pointe every day. I didn't realize how hard they actually work! And how much strength goes into it. They're killing themselves every day to get stronger and stronger, and on top of that they have to make it look beautiful and easy.

A lot of the pointework I did with the Trocks wasn't necessarily correct; I had to work on my lines and my feet, especially the small transitions. I'm so inspired and have so much to chew on, and now I have material to work on for years and years to come when I leave ENB at the end of this production.

What he's been rehearsing and performing for The Sleeping Beauty

I worked on Carabosse, which was really fun! I performed as a Marchioness in the Hunt Scene, and I was one of the girls in the mazurka every night. I was also able to put on a tutu and pointe shoes to understudy a nymph in the dream sequence, and got a lot of good feedback from that.

I'm only contracted through Sleeping Beauty, which closes June 16, but I definitely feel at home at ENB. I don't know when the possibility for me to come back will be, but Lord knows if they call I'm running back!

How the dancers at English National Ballet reacted

I was in an all-gay company, and I walked into this diverse company—gay, straight, men, women, from this country or that country, and everybody was so natural about it. They didn't see me as something different, they saw me as a dancer. They believed in me and helped me, and on days when I was hard on myself they picked me up and encouraged me. Without the support of the dancers I wouldn't have made it onstage.

His new goals involve subverting ballet's gender binary

Johnsey performing in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Elliot Franks, Courtesy In the Lights PR

One goal would be to perform en pointe, in the corps, and have nobody know or comment on it. I've done principal roles my entire career, but being able to blend in as a swan or a shade is more impressive.

The other goal is to dance as a ballerina with a female who is doing the male role. Of course the Trocks have done guy-to-girl for years, but there hasn't been much attention to the female side of that, or the trans side. With the visibility I now have, I want to fight for those people, too.

Why he wants to dance as a ballerina—but not transition

Wendy Whelan mentioned this in The New York Times: I'm not doing this to take away jobs from women. I was born a ballerina.

I've had people question why I want to dance as a ballerina, but not transition. Women have been my heroes my whole life, from my mom to my sister to my ballet teachers, to Tamara Rojo, who saved my career, and who has given me a huge platform to make a change in the world. Strong ballet women are my superheroes, and that's what I want to portray.

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