Ballet drag

Most drag queens develop their outré identities in backroom clubs and on dimly lit cabaret floors. Chase Johnsey discovered his alter ego in a much more rarified atmosphere: On opera house stages across the globe, performing female leads in Le Corsaire and Dying Swan. At age 18, Johnsey joined Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the world’s finest all-male travesty ballet company. Today the 24-year-old is the most convincingly feminine and technically accomplished “female” dancer in the 36-year old company. On August 12, while watching Johnsey dance as Yakaterina Verbosovich at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, I heard a continual comment emerge from audience members’ mouths: “That’s a guy?”

The disbelief over Johnsey’s sexuality isn’t a superficial one. It’s not just that he looks like a young woman because he is small boned and under 5’4”. He dances like the softer sex. The elasticity of his spine, the delicacy of his pointe work, and the sprightliness of his jump are what make him a bonafide ballerina. With his tutu and a tiara, he is also confusingly similar in look to other ballerinas, like Jennifer Ringer or Ashley Bouder (both of the New York City Ballet). In contrast, his fellow Trocks dancers come across as guys impersonating female ballet dancers. They have calves like soccer players and pecs like swimmers. They get the laughs. Johnsey gets the hushed gasps.

In the female solo variation of Le Corsaire, Johnsey effortlessly pulled off 32 fouettes. But what came as an even greater surprise was the discovery of his very public, off stage life. On YouTube Johnsey has posted 38 videos about his female drag persona Serenity. This alter ego isn’t related to his ballerina one. Johnsey, in a blond wig and full make up, talks and acts like a young Paris Hilton (discussing the merits of owning a Louis Vuitton clutch bag and of developing inner beauty). In the You Tube video called Transformation, he films himself changing from Johnsey into Serenity through a meticulous application of makeup and hair. 1,025,079 viewers have seen this video. Talk about a following. It’s practically a movement.

Johnsey’s decision to be a post-performance drag queen harkens back to the good old days of the Ballet Trockadero. In 1974, the original members performed at underground clubs. They made their debut in a 2nd floor loft space on 14th street in the heart of the meatpacking district, then ground zero for the New York transvestite crowd.

But times have changed for the Trocks. They’ve gone mainstream. In more than 250 cities, the company entertains nice bourgeois folk, sometime 2,000 of them at a time. Their show’s ticket prices can go as high as $300 each (calculating exchange rates). Johnsey’s determination to put his Corsaire wig down and hit the gay club scene as Serenity seems like a lot of work and effort. Johnsey, however sees it differently.  “If I can be a ballerina,” he drawls on YouTube, “I can definitely be a drag queen.”

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