Chase Johnsey in the English National Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty" - photo by Elliot Franks

Last week, the English National Ballet performed their version of "The Sleeping Beauty" with all their usual glory - elaborate sets and costumes, and lovely dancing. However, it was a groundbreaking moment for Chase Johnsey, as he became the first male dancer in recent history to perform a traditionally female role in a major ballet company. 

In an interview with The New York Times, the American-born dancer said that he "wants to be seen as a ballerina. My hair is up, I wear makeup, female attire. I am able to do female roles and look the part, so that is artistically what I do." He chooses to use the male pronoun but says that he is gender fluid. He has had facial surgeries to make his face appear more feminine and has been working with a nutritionist, physical trainer and ballet mistress to reshape his body, which included losing 20 pounds off his 5-foot 5-inch frame. 

Johnsey was formerly a member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, famous for their comical renditions of classical ballets with men dancing en pointe in the leading roles. In 2017, he won an award for 'best male dancer' at Britain's National Dance Awards for his work with the company. For his role in Sleeping Beauty, however, he performed as a member of the corps de ballet, appearing in the character-dance sequences in character shoes.

The director of English National Ballet Tamara Rojo (who was recently under fire for her management of the company as well as her relationship with a dancer - see our reporting on that here) told the NY Times that she felt this step was "reflecting the world we live in. There are different races, cultures and beliefs in our company - this is another aspect of that view."

We're all for gender equality, and for people expressing their true selves by any means possible! It takes a truly brave person to do what Johnsey is doing. But this does open up an interesting debate. One the one hand, ballet has been used for centuries as a way for men to express feminine characteristics. And why should it matter who is performing the role, as long as they are embodying the character and executing the choreography with passion and grace? But, as Isabella Boylston told the Times, companies need to be "open to it going both ways" and place women in male roles as well. 

What are your thoughts? We want to hear from you - leave us a comment below!

Read the entire interview here

photo: Chase Johnsey in the English National Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty" - credit: Elliot Franks

About the author

Anne Luben has performed works by notable choreographers such as Donald McKayle, Bill T. Jones, Jiri Kylian, Idan Cohen, Alex Ketley, and Summer Lee Rhatigan, among others.