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.
She's an incredibly gifted 18-year-old student at the Kirov Academy of Ballet with lines for dayyyyys. She's also transgender. And describing her as inspiring is a bit of an understatement.
Jay began transitioning relatively recently, and has been documenting her journey on Instagram. She's an active advocate for transgender youth, the kind of role model that so many young people—inside and outside of the dance world—need right now.