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.

The Conversation
News

Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.

The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.

As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Lorenzo Di Cristina/Unsplash

When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.

The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."

Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.

So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

News
Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox