Chase Johnsey (second from right) in English National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Elliot Franks, Courtesy In The Lights PR.

Breaking the Binary: Trans, Gender-Fluid and Other Nonbinary Artists Are Seeking Equal Opportunity in Classical Ballet

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.

Embracing the Gender Spectrum

Gaynor Minden named Jayna Ledford a 2018-19 Gaynor Girl.

Dwayne Dunlap, Courtesy Ledford

Decades of research shows that human gender and sex are not limited to a strict male-female binary. The spectrum includes, but is not limited to, cisgender people, who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth; agender people, who identify with no gender; gender-fluid people, who identify as a unique blend that is not fixed on the spectrum; and trans people, who don't identify with their assigned gender and who may (or may not) use clothing, cosmetics, hormones or surgery to transition to their authentic gender. People everywhere on the spectrum choose the pronouns (he/she/they, etc.) that feel right to them. (Gender is also extremely personal; we aren't disclosing information that could compromise the dancers' safety or well-being.)

Johnsey, 33, focuses on dancing female roles. For 14 years he was a star in the drag ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances from Paquita, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire earned him a 2016 UK National Dance Award as Best Male Dancer. He resigned from the company last January, alleging harassment and discrimination (an internal investigation did not substantiate those allegations).

Regardless of his gender identity, Johnsey argues that his technical and artistic qualifications should make him eligible to dance in a traditional ballet company. "If I were in the back of the corps, and nobody noticed me, then what's the issue? I'm not hurting anybody," he says. "I'm trying to open possibilities for dancers."

Males dancing females' roles, and vice versa, is an issue for many people. Concerns range from unfair competition to a fear that ballet's artistic standards will be diminished. "Some directors or choreographers simply don't see it happening because it's never been done," says Johnsey. And in a New York Times article about Johnsey's ENB debut, former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan quipped, "If he is the best girl for the job, then great," yet voiced concern about men already having fewer hurdles than women in ballet.

NYCB principal Ashley Bouder, a longtime fan of Johnsey's and a supporter of inclusivity in ballet, feels that worries about nonbinary artists taking women's jobs are overblown. "There are so few trans dancers that it doesn't represent that big of a threat," she says. "If nonbinary dancers get that job, they may just be better. That would be true for anybody."

Indeed, Johnsey and the other dancers in this story want to dance at the highest possible level. Johnsey, for example, prepared for The Sleeping Beauty by taking women's company class, working with ENB associate artistic director Loipa Araújo and developing longer, leaner musculature with ENB's dance scientist through nutrition and cross-training. "A lot of my pointework wasn't necessarily correct," he says. "The world for females in ballet is very tough, and the work is a lot more detailed."

Many have suggested that Johnsey would find more acceptance in contemporary dance. "What I am addressing is classical ballet," he says, with obvious frustration. "I'm not gonna back down, because then I'm not fighting." He cites Misty Copeland as a role model. "It wasn't until she changed the world's mind that the ballet world finally changed its mind."

Fighting for Authenticity

"I had to choose between not dancing at all and living my truth," says Scout Alexander.

Quinn De Anna, Courtesy Alexander

It can be difficult to grasp the elation a nonbinary dancer feels when they are finally able to dance as their true selves. "Up until about age 17, I was struggling with having to train mainly as female, because it was the only option I had," recalls Scout Alexander, 19. The Cleveland dancer, who dreams of performing male roles in a major ballet company, was assigned female at birth and is transitioning to male, and uses male pronouns. "I had to choose between not dancing at all and living my truth."

Facing backlash after coming out as trans at age 15, Alexander debated quitting ballet altogether. "I wasn't sure if I'd be able to have a career and have this identity, because I had been told that the two couldn't coexist." Unsure if he would be able to train as a male at his studio, he enrolled in open evening classes elsewhere. "I could wear more what I wanted," he says, "but it was not the intense training that I should have been having."

Determined to be himself in the ballet world, Alexander left home at 18. He auditioned and earned a full male scholarship to BalletMet's 2018–19 trainee program. "As long as a dancer can fully participate in our programs at the same or higher level as our other dancers, they are welcome," says BalletMet executive director Sue Porter.

Alexander has deferred for a year while he adjusts to hormone treatment, recovers from surgery to flatten his chest and builds strength for partnering. In the meantime, he is a trainee with Inlet Dance Theatre, a contemporary company in Cleveland. "They've been absolutely amazing with accepting me and training me as 100 percent male," he says. "Since I am so new into my transition, there's a lot of things I'm way behind with compared to other guys my age."

Making Hard Choices

"I just want to dance," says Delaware dancer Jayna Ledford, 19, who was assigned male at birth and faced barriers early on. When Ledford started ballet lessons at age 5, "I asked if I could wear a leotard like the other students, and the teacher said no," she recalls. As many studios do, her school hewed to the standard division between boys' and girls' training, and she was forced to leave. Ledford ultimately decided to conceal her gender identity, and went on to excel in men's training.

Last January, though, she felt ready to come out as trans while on a full male scholarship at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, and began using female pronouns. "It was really easy after that to just be myself, and it felt amazing," she says. The students were immediately supportive, and the school made accommodations, such as exempting her from male partnering class. Last spring, she began hormone therapy and started pointe training.

In spite of Ledford's long legs, dolphin arches and graceful port de bras, her status as a trans female could mean an uphill path to her dream roles of Juliet, Aurora and Kitri. "I'm nervous for Jayna," says Michele Xiques, who has trained Ledford for five years and is director of First State Dance Academy in Milford, Delaware. "There's not enough experiences out there for teachers and directors to turn to. How did you handle it? What were the guidelines? I just want to make Jayna feel safe and help as much as I can because she's got the talent."

Ledford completed her school year at the Kirov Academy in May, and in August decided she would train at home, catching up on pointe technique and dancing The Nutcracker Express in Delaware. ("I get to do new choreography," Xiques says, "because she's able to do jumps and turns that some born females aren't capable of doing because she has so much strength.") She's considering applying for college.

"There are so many obstacles I have to overcome," Ledford says. "I feel sad, but I'm not letting this stop me from doing what I want to do."

These dancers are on the vanguard, and it can be a lonely place. Last spring Johnsey reached out to Ledford, and the two were eager to meet. "Lots of happy tears!" Ledford recalls of their visit in New York. Johnsey agrees: "It's incredible to see in the flesh, right in front of your eyes, who you're fighting for."

Sean Dorsey assisted with this story.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streamed in the UK, U.S. and Canada on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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