This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 25th of July 2018. It is a warm interview that covers so much of Chase’s work, recorded right after his history making performance with English National Ballet. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
Transcripts are a new initiative of Delving into Dance and over the following months we will be experimenting with the form of the transcripts, we welcome any feedback regarding the form and layout. These transcripts are paid for through the support of audiences and supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. It would be wonderful to have your contribute to this initative, You can contribure here. A big thank you to Jack Fordham, whose support got this episode over the line.
And I started by asking, when Chase started dance?
Chase Johnsey: I started dancing when I was seven years old. I'm from the southern United States. So my parents, we were watching TV. And Billy Ray, Cyrus Achy Breaky Heart came on. And I started line dancing in front of the TV to that. And then my mother put me in dance, because she thought it was something that I liked doing. And also, I was always sort of a strange child.
And my mother always knew that I was gay. So I think she, she knew that I would be protected, doing dance and in the arts, you know, it would be a great outlet for me creatively, I think. So that's sort of how I started. And I didn't really start serious ballet training till I was 14.
And then that's when I saw my first ballerina on pointe. And when I saw it, everything clicked. And I sort of just knew that was the medium that I wanted to express myself in was with pointe shoes. And three years later, I got into Trocadero. [2:09]
Andrew: What was it about the pointe shoes?
Chase Johnsey: Well, it's strange, because even back then, I could do more on point than on flat. And there was just something beautiful and light and just graceful about the look of it. And I don't know, the other thing is, like, I, I knew that it was incredibly hard, and I am a huge feminist.
So there was something about the strength of the females going on point that really interested me, I liked that, that there was strength behind that beauty. And like, my mom's a strong woman, and my sister is a strong woman. So I think, and, and I always sort of wanted to emulate that sort of female strength. So I, I think that that also has a lot to do with it, that I that's the type of strength that I want. And, and even to this day, I aspire to have that sort of female strength. [3:15]
Andrew: Obviously, the point shoes, you know, represent elegance and a whole, you know, range of other things. Are there reasons why men aren’t taught on pointe earlier? you know, that it is still so gendered in that in that respect.
Chase Johnsey: Yeah, well, I think that they do sometimes put boys on pointe either strengthen or make their ankles more flexible, but I don't think it's taken seriously.
I think that obviously, ballet is a traditional art. And, you know, I and I hate this expression. But, you know, they say, Well, we've always done it this way, girls have always danced on pointe, and the guys don't.
So I don't know, I think that it's beneficial, even if somebody doesn't want to make a career out of it. I think it's good for you. Also, I think it helps the boys sympathize with the girls a little bit because it really does hurt. [4:20]
Andrew: When did you first put on the pointe shoes?
Chase Johnsey: After I saw one of the girls on pointe in my ballet school which this is like the late 90s, early 2000s, I needed a pair. I'm a very decisive person in that way. I knew I wanted to dance on pointe. And I needed to, but I wasn't brave enough. Or I don't even know if I had gone into like a dance boutique if they would have sold me a pair. So I decided to order them through the discount dance supply magazine.
And luckily, they sort of fit and then I would just find times with empty studio space and bourrée my life away in there. I couldn't do much. But I just wanted to bourrée on pointe and do PK turns and stuff like that. That's sort of how it all started. [5:23]
Andrew: Apart from the pain. What does it feel like when you're on pointe?
Chase Johnsey: That's a really hard question. Because in the beginning, when you first start, you feel like you're really really tall, like, it's pretty scary way up there. But then now I've been dancing on point for 14 years. So now it's become second nature. And I can and I can do a lot more on point that I can do not on point.
I mean, and that's what the even the girls you know, they trained for years to have that comfort and it becomes second nature. So now, even though sometimes some days I have like a bruise toenail, or my feet are sore, or whatever, it's it's simply it's what I do. And and I've made it second nature. And that's that's part of being a professional dancer is, you know, it has to become part of you. [6:24]
Andrew: So can we talk about when dance did become a profession for you? And I guess the steps or the transition or the pathway into dance as a career.
Chase Johnsey: Me and my mother were actually talking about this yesterday while we were having lunch. And I have been really, really lucky in my life that I have always had people I've had a lot of people tell me no, but I've had a couple amazing people tell me Yes. And that's been my claim to not fame, but success or making it in this industry.
I had a lot of Ballet teachers tell me, I was too short and too thin and too feminine to be a ballet dancer. But I found some teachers that would coach me on point. And then I didn't get into any summer for any of the big summer programs, even though I was talented. But because of my size. I never got scholarship. I never got into those big ballet schools. But then I sort of knew that Trockadero was a place that I could be successful because of my size. And because I like dancing on point. So I got a yes from Trockadero. Even though by the book. I didn't go to an amazing ballet school. I didn't go to any amazing summer programs. I don't have an amazing physique, or a amazing male technique. But somehow, some way I was able to sort of get in any way because I had to find a person that was going to tell me. Yes. And the same thing happens now with English National Ballet. When I quit Trocadero, she found me but I, I found one single person in the ballet world that was willing to tell me, yes, and believe in me. So, um, I've never been a dancer that had offers coming, you know, from all ends, like, I know, some people do. They're like having to turn down things. No, for me, it's always been, I always search and find that one person that's going to tell me. Yes. So that is how I've managed my entire career. [8:38]
Andrew: Yeah, like earlier this year, you did leave the Trockadero’s after 14 years very publicly saying that you're standing up for what you believe in, do you want to talk a little bit about why you left and I felt you needed to leave?
Chase Johnsey: Um, I had won the National Dance award in the UK for best male dancer, and I was nominated for Best Performance and the role of Paquita and, um, I then had visibility right. And just, there were a lot of things that I understand about Trockadero but that I didn't necessarily agree with, for example, they don't address political issues, they don't advocate for any of those issues.
And, and they're very public about that they're a show, so But, and that's fine, because, you know, we were dancing and making people happy. However, behind the scenes, we weren't 100% free to be who we were, people couldn't be overly feminine, people couldn't wear makeup in class, people couldn't wear things that like female dance attire.
And also the trans issue, the company stands for the trans issue was a major kicker for me, because the company had already had a female to male trans gender person in the company that did both roles, yet, their stance on it is, if a male were to transition to a female, that person would only be able to do male roles. And I don't like that, because I have a lot of trans friends and trans people. They, they're humans too. And I just didn't agree with it.
I stuck my neck out and martyred my career, I ruined my career while I was in my prime, simply because I was tired of having to meet all of these people, Board of Directors, sponsors and donors and all of these people, and say that it was an establishment that was, was a safe place and a free place when in reality, that wasn't the case. And so, you know, I experienced these dancers crying to me, and feeling suppressed and, and not being able to be who they are. And it didn't make sense to me in an all gay company that's been fighting the fight for 40 years. And even if in the past, they and this is where it comes from, I don't think that it's from a bad place. I don't think that the organization is malicious in, in telling people not to transition or not to become overly feminine, they're trying to protect them selves because of a history of homophobia, with presenters with theatre crews, with you know, but the thing is, is that I believe that they should create a safe environment for every single person that they hire.
And it's so funny that at English National Ballet, I was free, I was able to be myself, I could wear whatever I wanted on any given day, whether I wore makeup, and pink tights, and a leotard or I didn’t. So it was just really, really important for me. And, you know, as artists, we need freedom. And sometimes in order to open up and find your ballerina persona, sometimes you have to convince yourself of that, even in the studio. And, I just had to put my foot down. And I thought that it would have been a situation where I would have been able to go back because there was a formal independent investigation.
But then it seems very apparent that the very people that I was sticking up for did not come forward and admitted due to there's only one Trockadero or due to their own personal career goals. But in the end, it was the best thing that I could do it, you know, is, was to leave, because ultimately, now I'm able to champion those issues on my own. And in a much bigger way. [13:20]
Andrew: When you left, you thought that perhaps you would never do ballet again. And the opposite was true in the sense that, as you mentioned, you were dancing for the English National Ballet, do you want to talk about that experience a little bit more on what it was like to be working in what is such a Main Stage Company in the female ensemble.
Chase Johnsey: Sure. Um, well, you know, I, we, me and English National Ballet, both we were not very public when I first joined about it, because it was not a publicity stunt bringing me there was only extension of the diversity of the actual company. So just like they have male, female, gay, straight, black, Asian, everything, I was only an extension of that. And so, um, but this has never happened before.
So we took it step by step. And it actually happened very natural, because the organization they only see me as a dancer, and the other dancers, they only see me as a fellow dancer. And after the initial shock of maybe how shocking I look, they realized that we're all there for a common goal.
Um, it was very challenging to take class with the girls every day. Because a lot of the technical things that we had done that Trockadero weren't or I shouldn't say them. Me, personally, a lot of the things, the ways that I worked in my dancing were not necessarily correct.
And so I had a different standard to live up to. And that was a whole creative process and a creative struggle for me, because at first, I really wanted to blend in with the girls. I wanted to look like them. I wanted the lines. But it became very obvious that English National Ballet just wanted me to be me. And that includes my musculature that includes the benefits and the pros and the cons of having testosterone, which is like, I'm not as flexible. But, you know, you know, my muscles are different. And I'm not going to say I'm stronger, because that's not true.
But there's a different dynamic to it. But so there was a, you know, it was really hard in, they helped me except myself, and I heard it over and over again, while I was there, that they just wanted me to be sincere, and they wanted me to be who I was, they wanted me to push my limits, they didn't want me to be any more or less. So that was also something new, because in the Troc’s, we're men on point, and we need the attack and we need to see the struggle whereas there, it was all about personal exploration.
So and then, of course, like, all of the issues that I had, with what I did in end were with myself, I was my own worst enemy, because I was treated absolutely amazing there because I was treated like everyone else.
So I'm like, I had days where I would cry, doubting myself, I've days where I would cry, wondering if I was the best person to make this type of history, because I don't have the most amazing body.
Days where like dress rehearsal, I was panicking. scared that I was gonna look like a man in a dress, you know, like, these are all fears that I had, and then I had to definitely work through. Um, but ultimately, in the end, it definitely paid off. Because with that little small step that I made, it's the impossible is now possible and opportunities are already happening that were not there before, not just for me, but for other people too. [17:39]
Andrew: I mean it's quite interesting you talk about being told to be yourself and a lot of people when thinking of ballet or classical kind of traditions would not necessarily see that as something that is often encouraged so that in itself is amazing and I imagine quite refreshing for a lot of other dancers.
Chase Johnsey: Well, the amazing thing about the English National Ballet is that when you go there, the dancers are all individuals and they're all seen as that they all have their strengths and their weaknesses. And that's okay, they're fine with that they all have different shape bodies, and they all are different human beings.
And I think that the organization applauds that and even though for me to be in the ensemble, of course, I wanted to be of course, along the lines of a female so of course, I had to lose weight, I had to tone my muscles down um, that was my own personal choice was to do that, but it's beautiful that a company of 60 some odd individuals can go on stage and still look like a corps de ballet and look great and be a world renowned company. You know, I love that! [19:12]
Andrew: There was of course, some backlash in regards to I guess their casting choices. Were you surprised or were you kind of expecting that some people would struggle with a man performing in the female ensemble?
Chase Johnsey: I think that it's important that people understand the context of what I'm doing in the in the arts world. Doing cross gender roles is not something new. It's not something that I'm inventing. It really does happen across all arts mediums, specifically opera. For example, they have what's called a countertenor, which is a male that can sing the female roles. And of course, it sounds slightly different. The male in that role look slightly different. But they're able to do it. And it's not in a mocking way, that there's a different beauty to that. And that's basically what I do. I'm a male, but I'm able to do the female parts. And so of course, there's backlash, people are accusing me of taking jobs away from women and trying to break the traditional Ballet that's already been set of, Oh, well, girls, are girls and guys are guys. But the thing is, is that Ballet is an art form, we're not machines, where we're not recreating the same production to same way every single time and where the world is, right now, we're going to work towards more openness with gender and hope that we're eventually will be seen as individuals and not have so many different labels.
That it's important that we that even in the classical traditional sense that it does reflect the times. So with what I'm doing, of course, it's going to seem like I'm trying to fight for a ballet company, to have an entire core of men dressed as women. And that's not the case, my, what I'm doing is I want to open up the possibility of it, so I'm able to do it.
So I should be able to just like any other person, just like like Misty Copeland, or any other person that has anything slightly different about them, if they're able to do it, then they should be able to do it. And so the backlash, of course, people who have never felt excluded based on circumstances that they could not help. Of course, they're not going to understand it, they're not going to agree with that. But I do know that there are so many people out there that have been that have felt left out, and that have felt like they were restricted by society and what they think even though they had a talent for this, or that, and I am here to break it. So I'm willing to pay the price and take the backlash, and all of that in order to, to make sure that, you know, like this father on Instagram, who messaged me and said, my son, his dream is to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. And now that I know, I can tell him that he can, you know, That's the reason you know, I'm in and what I do, like I said, like I'm not taking like ballerinas are my super heroes. And on top of that, I have an extensive resume to backup the work that I'm doing. Hmm. You know. So it's not that, you know, I was an award winning critically acclaimed ballerina in Trockadero so people have to understand that, yeah, I'm gonna break boundaries. [23:27]
Andrew: It's so interesting, because ballet is, of course, so strongly gendered in its narratives, I guess, in the roles and even down to movement with different expectations around the way men move, and the way women move. And I think obviously, your inclusion has started a range of conversations, even though the presentation of gender was still very much around male and female, and that your inclusion was in the female ensemble. I guess a much bigger conversation that you're prepared to have!
Chase Johnsey: You know, I've done a ton of interviews, and I thought I was good at them. But now I'm having really tough interviews with really tough questions. And it's amazing. And because with these interviews, it gives me an amazing time to, to reflect, and then to dive deeper into the significance of what I do, especially socially. So one of the questions that I always get is, well, why don't you start your own dance company? And the answer to that question, as I have no interest.
If somebody has a Trans company, I'm happy for them. But that's not the fight that I'm doing. I'm opening up possibilities in a conventional company, ballet company, for people that don't fit the norm, so I don't want to make a company, sort of like Trockadero or an even more gender inclusive company and only be able to afford 20 some odd people opportunity to do what they love and exclude everybody else. That's not I think that I have the potential to do something much bigger, which I can go to English National Ballet. And even though I did a dance on pointe, I can show the world that I can fit in with a traditional setting with a range of people.
And that for me, is much more significant to what I want which is to create the possibility in any ballet company for anybody who's talented enough to be there and so that's one issue that the I'm always asked about why don't you just make it but like for example, look at me I was the Trockadero, and had Tamara Rojo not saved to me.
I would have never danced again because there's only one Trockadero and I know I'm a huge fan of what Sean Dorsey does, because of the content of what he portrays. He addresses political issues. So I I, and he is a fighter, so I'm definitely on board with him. I'm not saying that what he's doing is bad. But for me, personally, I just don't want to, to group us off, you know, because then we're going to be even more isolated. [26:35]
Andrew: So in regards to obviously, there are a lot more conversations happening in terms of the interviews that you've had, and the way people have been, I guess, talking about it, what kind of advocacy Do you want to see, or what kind of the things that you want to see changed in the short term to make these companies may be more reflective of the society in which they emerge?
Chase Johnsey: Well, I'll tell you what, I learned a lot from Tamara Rojo while I was there. And one of the amazing things about this woman is that her actions speak much louder than her words. So the action of me going onstage opening night at the Coliseum in London, and even the critics not being able to pick me out is already a huge step.
Because that shows that no matter what you are, you can blend in. And so that that is a huge step. I have other things that will happen in the future that will continue to reinforce that. And so you know, I've gotten backlash from my own community saying that I don't do enough for that I don't say enough, or I don't post enough or I don't go to this private event or that festival. And but the important thing to really realize is that the simple gesture of a person like me fitting in seamlessly with the company and everybody reading and witnessing it, that is what changes minds not not, I mean, and people should protest and advocate. And that's great.
But I think the real profound world change actions are in what you do, and, and hopefully, with the opportunities that I've been afforded, that's going to make directors and ballet companies question their own stance on it. And I'm like, because Luckily, fingers crossed. The press has actually been really good to me about this. And even though there has been backlash, there's been a lot of people supporting me as an individual. So I hope that that that does have an impact. And I know for a fact that it has, I've talked to with very important people in the ballet world that think what I'm doing is a great idea, or directors that are contacting me and either asking me this or that.
Yeah, and I guess that's how I advocate is by A, being myself unapologetically and B, going in there and getting my elbows dirty, and fitting into a ballet company. The roles in classical ballet, like the leading roles, I don't know if I'll ever do a principal role ever again.
But I think that gender has a place if given in the right context. And for example, when I dance, how honest was it for me to play a creature that's trapped in a different body, you know, and Giselle going crazy over somebody betraying her, which is a really real thing in the trans community of men being ashamed to be seen with them, you know, and there's all these opportunities to bring a different spin on these ballets.
A Cis gendered male and female that are straight, of course, they can associate with that love story. But so can we, you know, and I think it's, I think it's important to understand that we have things to offer these roles too. [30:44]
Andrew: And that's the thing too, with a lot of these roles in ballet often haven't been played by heterosexual dancers. And that doesn't necessarily get in the way of the narrative or the reading or the way the audience sees the work either, you know, so the idea that it is actually performative its performance. So there is that capacity.
Chase Johnsey: When you get down to the humanity of it, for example, the irony of it was, I only dance with straight men in the production of sleeping beauty, and they were completely fine with it. Because once they got to know me, it was a human dancing with a human enjoying the music and it that is profound art in itself, that I can dance with somebody, and I'm not forcing anything in my personal life on them. I'm there to dance and do my job that I'm paid to do and make art.
And it was incredible, because I was really bullied by straight guys. And I worked at a gay company for 14 years. So I was actually the one that was nervous and weird and awkward at first dancing with only straight guys, like I had three or four straight guys. And I even danced with some straight guys from English National Ballet School, you know, and everybody was okay with it. And it's amazing where the world is going. Because these young people, there's no, there's no convincing them about it. They see it for what it is, and they accept it. And that's it. There's no conversation that needs to be had. And the amazing part was the kids in the school were much more fascinated and intrigued and wanted to ask me questions and wanted to, you know, be around me, you know. [32:38]
Andrew: When you say you were bullied by straight men. Was that as a dancer? Other dancers? Historically?
Chase Johnsey: Um, well, in school, the straight guys tormented me for obviously, being feminine. And then of course, I had some straight ballet teachers that, you know, would say, I don't care how gay you are, you have to be a prince when you're on stage. I just had this fear of straight guys. And now I don't you know, or at least not in that company because, I mean, they just saw me as me.
You know my personal life. And what I do in my personal life is very different from the art that I make. There's no sex, there's no sexual appeal, or anything to ballet. For me, it's my art. It's what I create. It's what I do to make people happy, and to make an impact on the world. And I assume them too. So that's what we were doing together. We were not, you know, we're dancing with a straight guy is not making them question their sexuality or mine. It's simply the fact of two people musing. Moving into music together.
Andrew: Who are your role models, if you look, you know, throughout your life, who are the people that you know, you source inspiration or strength from?
Chase Johnsey: It's always powerful women, for sure. My mother, who is strength and heart wrapped up into one little body, definitely my sister, who is my best, best best friend.
I have a lot of ballerinas that I loved, and, and drew inspiration from, for them being brave enough to be themselves trailblazers Maya Plisetskaya, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Alina Cojocaru, who I was, I shared the stage with. And of course, Tamara Rojo for her strength and her backbone and her willingness to, to take this risk on me, because she felt that it was right.
And the thing is, like, in my life itself, is the women that save me, and it makes me so happy that now, I am actively seeking out, you know, cuz I sort of like the irony that I am in it, you know, I'm doing the core female in a company. And I'm being directed by a female. So the roles are way reversed in that way. And I love that. So now I'm really actively seeking out female choreographers to work with me, so that I can further show that that dynamic does work.
I love that. And I, and that's something to that I advocate for. I want more female directors and choreographers, I think it's important. [35:49]
Andrew: So in regards to female choreographers and artistic directors is a pretty hot topic when you look at main stage companies around the world. I mean, it's shifting and the conversations being had.
Chase Johnsey: I think that a lot of strong women are doing great jobs with that Ashley Bouder, she is a very strong woman and doing great things. Tamara Rojo, Julie Kent at Washington Ballet. I know I'm missing a lot of them. And I'm probably going to get heat for that. But but it's happening. And then, you know, it's happening more because these women are doing amazing work, not because they're women. They're actually more than qualified to be doing what they're doing. And they're doing amazing at it. And so with that good work that they're doing, that's why you're seeing it more and more. Yes, because now it's being there, we're addressing the issue. So more women are getting the opportunity but more than that, they're succeeding in it. And that's that mean that's the slow way to change but it is changing, you know.
Andrew: In regards to I guess where you're heading. What do you see yourself kind of doing in five years time? What’s the kind of path where do you want to go with it? How far do you want to push this?
Chase Johnsey: Well, um, I still want to keep fighting for sure. My next, I have a couple of goals that I want to achieve, I'd love to get on pointe in a production and blend in that in the corps de ballet, I think that would be the next big step.
I also would love to dance as a female with a female that is doing the male role. Or I'd love to dance with trans dancers and give them visibility. I'm really interested in working with Sean Dorsey and his dance company. Because I see he's doing wonderful things. So I’d love to be in another thing that I would really love to do. And and one of the interviews that one of the really hard interviews I did, they asked me Alexei Ratmansky statement about… do you remember that statement? It was like men are men and women are women. And you know, they shouldn't cross over, right? [38:23]
Chase Johnsey: And they asked me what I thought about that. And like I said before, I think that statement is true to that person. But he's never felt like I felt like like, I feel I'm an outsider. I am strange in the ballet world.
And even though I'm finding my place, I'm still the odd character out and somebody who's never felt out casted by the ballet world doesn't understand that. So I I'm in negotiation to make an artistic dance film that poetically explains, what it's like to be me and the struggles that I have with a mirror and my body dysmorphia.
And certain days, I just hate myself and I hate my body and certain days that I doubt myself. And a just like to give an artistic feeling of what it's like to be a person that doesn't fit the norms in ballet not just as far as gender, but of color too. And I really like to make a dance film that displays that. And I think that that would be a profound work because I've never in my career I've never gotten I never got to be raw and ugly. And and show the real side and real work of what I do. I've only been able to show the, the beautiful makeup in the in the tutus and the tiaras. And I think I'm ready for the world. See me stripped, you know. [40:05]
Andrew: And that's the thing about dance. I mean a lot of different artistic disciplines, but dance in particular the amount of work that goes in to the studio to the training into the body around what you eat, you don't eat and all that kind of work that labor that goes into the practice that is seen on stages. So I guess glamorous and beautiful and flawless.
Chase Johnsey: You know, I'm an artist through and through I love all art. So then I find Beauty and The Ugly of it. So when I go to rehearsal, and I look like bad because my hair is going crazy. And my makeup a smeared and I'm sweaty, and I'm exhausted and and my feet are bruised and bloody. And you know and I'm and I'm struggling that struggle of the creative process is art too and and I think it's really important to show the world that in a very real and honest way.
Andrew: Yeah, I would watch that film for sure.
Chase Johnsey: Yeah, I mean, so many things that I I go through, just to convince myself that I'm a ballerina, you know, like hiding my genitals and ballet class is a really big struggle and it's very uncomfortable and I wear a wig every day and I wear things to mask my shoulders and accentuate different parts of my body and I have to shave every day which you know is terribly painful for my face but I have to go through all of these processes in order to even convince myself that I'm a ballerina!
As embarrassing and as raw and that as crazy as all of that is I think that I want to share that with the world to I'm not just a pretty Ballerina.