Chase Johnsey (second from right) in English National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Elliot Franks, Courtesy In The Lights PR.
George Balanchine famously said "Ballet is woman." He should have added that ballet is man, too, because it has long been defined by the traditional male-female binary. A formal challenge to the paradigm was launched in June, when Chase Johnsey was offered the opportunity to dance female corps roles in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in London.
"I am a classical ballerina," says Johnsey, a freelance dancer who identifies as gender fluid and uses he/him/his pronouns. His ENB performance (in the mazurka and as a marchioness in the hunt scene; he also understudied a nymph) made headlines around the world and turned him into an activist for the cause—not to change classical ballet, but to open its doors to artists across the full spectrum of human gender. By hiring Johnsey, ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo put ballet's gender-exclusiveness on notice. "Our work and our company should reflect the world we live in," she stated via email. "Ballet should have no barriers; it's for everyone, everywhere."
Johnsey isn't alone. Jayna Ledford and Scout Alexander, two young transgender dancers, are training hard to break into the professional ballet world. We spoke with them about the dreams, achievements and challenges of nonbinary artists in the intensely gendered world of ballet.
Weeks, a newly promoted SFB soloist, in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
If a dancer is very lucky, and very prepared, one performance can transform their career. Lonnie Weeks was that dancer on the opening night of San Francisco Ballet's Unbound Festival in April. Chosen by Christopher Wheeldon for the emotionally wrenching final solo in Bound To, Weeks, 27, went onstage as a superb but largely unsung company artist. When the curtain came down 30 minutes later, he was, rightfully, a star.
From Broadway's Billy Elliot to Bournonville, Redhead performs with effortless charisma. Photo by Klaus Vedfelt, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.
The Royal Danish Ballet's Ballet Festival in Copenhagen this June could have doubled as a showcase for corps dancer Liam Redhead, 23. On opening night, Redhead demonstrated his Bournonville mettle with a floating ballon and effortless charisma in Napoli's Act I ballabile. Then he delivered dazzling jumps as the Jester in artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe's Swan Lake, and later unleashed visceral power in Akram Khan's Vertical Road.
Miko Fogarty. Photo by Andrew Ross, Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Where in the world is Miko Fogarty? Just three years ago, she seemed unstoppable. After being featured in the 2011 ballet documentary First Position, she became a teenage social-media star, winning top prizes at competitions in Moscow and Varna and at Youth American Grand Prix, and dancing in galas around the world. Last most of us heard, it was 2015 and she had just joined the corps of Birmingham Royal Ballet. A year later, she dropped off the ballet radar.
Turns out Fogarty, now 21, was taking time off to reevaluate her life, including the role she wanted ballet to play in it. She is now starting her junior year as a biology major at University of California—Berkeley and is considering going to medical school. (Her brother and fellow First Position subject, 19-year-old Jules, is a junior in the Berkeley economics department.) On the side she teaches private ballet lessons and gives master classes, and is the part-time conservatory director at San Jose Dance International, a new school in the San Francisco Bay Area led by artistic director Yu Xin. We caught up with her by phone.
Last we heard, you were at Birmingham Royal Ballet.Where have you been over the last couple of years?
I've been kind of quiet on social media about what I'm up to. I hope in the future to be more open with my followers on my daily life. I'm kind of in the process. Right now I'm a premed student at Cal and I'm researching science, which is completely different from what I was doing a couple of years ago. I'm also teaching a lot. I love teaching ballet; it's definitely one of my passions.
Natalia Osipova as Isadora with Emily Anderson as Terpsichore. Photo by Doug Gifford, Courtesy Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Since stepping down as a Bolshoi Ballet principal in 2011, prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, now a principal with The Royal Ballet, has been on a quest to express her own artistic voice. This month she takes another stride on that path by starring in ISADORA, an evening-length narrative work about Isadora Duncan that premieres August 10–12 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.
From left: Jennifer Stahl, Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in rehearsal for Trey McIntyre's new work. Photo by Christian Peacock for Pointe.
Photography by Christian Peacock
Summer is always a lively time at San Francisco Ballet, as the dancers return from vacation and launch into rehearsals for the upcoming season. But last July through September felt absolutely electric with creativity as the company created 12 world premieres for Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a cutting-edge program that will run April 20–May 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited a wish list of international choreographers to participate: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. Each got about 12 dancers, three weeks' studio time and, aside from a few general guidelines, total artistic freedom.
Thompson was one of 23 American National Ballet dancers let go last fall. Photo by Giovanni Pizzino, Courtesy Thompson.
"All I want to do is dance," says Kimberly Thompson, 24. But because of her muscular physique, Thompson says, she struggled to find a company job. American National Ballet seemed like a dream come true: Founded in Charleston, South Carolina, in early 2017, the ambitious startup proclaimed itself as a home for dancers of diverse body types and ethnicities.
Thompson landed a corps contract with ANB and relocated from Maryland to Charleston. "September 18, 2017, was our first day," she recalls. On October 23, Thompson was one of 23 dancers (out of nearly 50) let go. And while the reasons for ANB's dramatic rise and fall have not been made fully public, the fallout for those artists is very real.
ANB, which officially dissolved a few months later, is only the most recent example of a company that's come and gone, leaving dancers in the lurch. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet shuttered in 2015, Silicon Valley Ballet closed mid-season in 2016, and Ballet Pacifica folded in 2007—after 42 years.
With ballet jobs scarce, getting an offer—any offer—can feel like the chance of a lifetime. But whether you're joining a startup like ANB or an established company, there is a lot to consider before you sign your contract and red flags to watch out for after you start work. Read on for advice from artists and executives with hard-won experience.
Johnston rehearsing her ballet "Filamentous." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Blake Johnston couldn't have planned a better year to join San Francisco Ballet. Not only has she dreamt of dancing for SFB since entering the company school in 2013, but the first-year corps member is also an aspiring choreographer. For Johnston, rehearsals for SFB's Unbound: A Festival of New Works means diving into a deep pool of creativity.
"I get to see all these new people, the whole process," Johnston, 21, says between rehearsals. "If I have a five-minute break, I'll run into the hallway to see if anything is happening."