Chase Johnsey, Dancer, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Yakatarina Verbosovich and Chase Johnsey.© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)
Yakatarina Verbosovich and Chase Johnsey.
© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)

Yet again the Trocks had a fabulous critical reception during their Autumn UK tour and mentioned in nearly every review was Chase Johnsey, or in Trocks speak their petite ballerina Yakatarina Verbosovich. So what makes Chase/Yakatarina tick? Time for an interview.

The interview circumstances were about as odd and terrific as they come – Chase was in his dressing room getting ready for a show, and sat before an enormous mirror, putting on Yakatarina’s makeup. I was sitting on a sofa behind and we talked via the mirror as the Chase to Yakatarina transformation unfolded…


Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour.© Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour. © Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)

The first question is the obvious one – how did you get into ballet? How old were you when you first noticed ballet?

Well I started ballet at 14. And before I did ballet, I did clogging, which is like the southern version of tapping. And I was actually a national champion. Two times national champion at clogging! I was like a child prodigy I guess. But then I got sort-of sick of that and I took a break from dance and then I started the violin. I loved playing the violin and got into a really fine arts school in my area but I ended up not liking the programme, but I wanted to stay there because I liked the arts school environment. So I switched to dance! And they took me because they needed boys! So then I started ballet.

You went through all these things prior to ballet, but when did you first notice ballet? You must have noticed it before 14?

Well you have to realise I came from a super, super, small red-neck town in Florida. So I probably saw a Nutcracker once on a school field trip. And I maybe saw it on TV. But I’m an extreme person – obviously you can tell as a child I went from clogging (national champion) to violin, loving music, and then when I got to the dance programme and I saw the women dancing ballet and I thought it was just beautiful. And it just made sense to me – watching how beautiful women were when they danced. And, that beauty inspired me, because I wanted to be beautiful – like that. You know I wanted to dance beautifully like I saw them dancing. It’s weird how impressionable humans are, or at least I am. It just inspired me.

So what were you aspirations at that time? You were doing a course in ballet/dance and what did you think you’d do – where would you go after?

I had really honest teachers. Because of my size (and I used to be even skinnier, I’ve just turned 30), I was really tiny, really thin, really weak, very feminine and effeminate dancer. And so they were like “Wow”, you can do modern, or maybe you want to dance at a theme park. Or I could do Trockadero. And I had already danced on pointe because, again, I saw these women dancing on pointe and I thought it was just beautiful. And I thought, “OK”. And then it came on TV – Trockadero – the Trockadero DVD came on TV. And that’s when I knew – OK THIS IS WHERE I NEED TO BE. This is where I’m going to fit in.

Chase Johnsey and Giovanni Goffredo, as Yekaterina Verbosovich and Sergey Legupski, in Paquita.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey and Giovanni Goffredo, as Yekaterina Verbosovich and Sergey Legupski, in Paquita. © Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

And that was at School

Yes – High School. I believe that everything happens for a reason. And I’m really glad I listened to the signals that my life was sending me at that moment because I was really confused as a teenager. I was gay, I was small, I was effeminate and I was looking through the TV one day and the Trockadero pops up. It was like “OK, this is a sign, this is what I should be doing”. You know.

So how did you audition? You were at dance school and you just sent in a tape?

Well my whole career is based on a lie and I’ll tell you why. Because after I saw Trockadero on TV I could not wait to finish school. So I did not finish school (I have finished now!) but I left high school in my senior year and auditioned for Trockadero – they didn’t know I was 17 years old, they didn’t know I hadn’t finished High School. And I auditioned and they took me. And when they found out, years later, my boss really wasn’t happy with me. But I ended up finishing later and now they actually verify people’s age and credentials, before they let them on the show.

But anyway I took class with them on tour in Florida.

How did you find it when you joined the Trocks. There must be a huge learning curve. What was it like?

Well I was from such a small town and there were not many gay people there. I was entering into a predominately gay situation and it was liberating. And at the same time, it was hard. Here I was, 17 years old, already having a career on salary and travelling the world, while most of my friends were still in High School. But like at the same time I was liberated because I could be myself, for who I was, but then at the same time I was having to learn all this ballet style – “Ballerina affectation” as we call it. It’s like a second schooling. And you have to learn it quick. I think I got 3 weeks and it was major. It was major. And I love it – you know what I mean.

Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour.© Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour. © Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)

You are not a typical Trock. In a way because you are very petite and you are a ballerina in manner. When I think of you I think of a ballerina. When I think about the Trocks I think wonderful dancers, very clever dancers, but I don’t necessarily think of full-on ballerinas. But you are.

Well thank you. Here I’m like the ballerina scholar – I’d say. Because I’ve read all of the ballerina memoirs and watched all the videos. A ballerina to me is somebody who breaths new life into old steps. Sort of like Makarova who breathed new life into Swan Lake or Gelsey Kirkland into Nutcracker. And ultimately I associate it with being a rebellious term and I am a rebellious person. Thankfully, that’s actually applauded here, because I do do things my own way. And I do dare to be different and that’s the most amazing feeling is that. You know we are not carbon copies of each other. Like for example we have Raffa (Raffaele Morra) who is like “Man with hair coming out the tutu and the armpits” and then we have really muscular-looking ballerinas. With me I had to be a little more clever with it, because of being effeminate and being small. I had to actually encompass a character and I had to become a stylist. So I have to tell the story, I have to be likable and then I have to take myself so seriously that at some points it reads ridiculous – to remind people: “Hey – this is still a joke”. And that’s sort of my gimmick – that is my ballerina gimmick. I take myself terribly seriously.

The Trocks as Odalisques: Raffaele Morra, Chase Johnsey and Robert Carter.© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)
The Trocks as Odalisques: Raffaele Morra, Chase Johnsey and Robert Carter.
© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)

It’s wonderful watching you because you can be ridiculous but there are stretches as well when you just think “Wow”, that’s incredible ballerina movement.

Well thank you – I appreciate you saying that. There’s two things – you have to be likable, even though we are doing drag and even though we are making fun of ballet, it has to be likeable. And it has to have integrity. So it’s really important that you setup a real situation and then break it. I went through this whole phase of obsessing over Meryl Streep and her craziness and what makes her so brilliant and what makes her so convincing in whatever she does. And really that’s what it is.

It’s amazing sitting here seeing you put on your face – How long does it take you to get ready for a performance and then un-ready at the end?

Well I love to have an hour and a half. I don’t always get an hour and a half! To take it off I like to get it off as fast as possible and that normally takes about 15 – 20 minutes. I mean you can tell like right now I look like a Geisha – it’s just layers and layers and layers.

Do you find there are two you’s – there’s Chase you and Yakatarina you?

That’s a good question actually. I think that Yakatarina has helped me discover different sides of my personality ‘cos I was a very shy person before. I was a very timid and now, with my ballerina persona, I can be outgoing and it allows me to explore different facets of myself. I guess they are sort of the same person. But then I don’t think of Yakatarina Verbosovich and Chase Johnsey as the same, but each role I go into is different. For Kitri for example, I have a lot of inspiration from the person that I’m marrying in 2 weeks – he is from Spain, so I spent a lot of time in Spain seeing the Flamenco dancers and seeing how the women react and seeing a Spanish relationship. And then Odette is a fragile sort of heart-breaking situation. Those things are different than who I am. Because then I have to pull from different areas in order to make those characters. I guess me and my ballerina character are the same… it’s a really really hard question!

Are you marrying somebody in the company?

Yep – one of the dancers – Carlos Renedo. (Update: I’m pleased to say they actually got married in November)

Chase Johnsey with partner Carlos Renedo at home.From the Dance Consortium Blog about Chase.© Dance Consortium. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey with partner Carlos Renedo at home.
From the Dance Consortium Blog about Chase.
© Dance Consortium. (Click image for larger version)

Congratulations. Does Yakatarina have a life outside of the Trocks? I mean over here (in the UK) somebody like Yakatarina might do celebrity appearances. Has anything like that ever happened?

I’ve done photoshoots in public and TV shows in Japan. In Japan we do a lot of stuff like that because we have a huge fan base and we have people always waiting at the stage door. I do club drag too – which is different from what we do (in the Trocks) but I sort of incorporate the ballet aspect. Like I did this Trockadero-style piece to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off”. And I did the Miss America Pageant for drag queens in the US. And I got third runner up actually!

It was big success and I was nervous because the Trockadero audience isn’t really gay. We have a mix of gay and straight and all ages and kids and everything. So I was nervous at the drag Pageant to perform in front of a gay audience. I wasn’t sure if they were going to get Trockadero but they do, so I was happy.

You obviously put an awful lot of effort into getting the details right for how to be a full-on Russian ballerina. Did I read somewhere that you have special lessons and coaching?

Yes. I work with two Russian coaches. One is Elena Kunikova and the other is Ludmila Raianova. One is from the Kirov and one is from the Bolshoi so I get the best of both worlds! Elena Kunikova is my biggest mentor because she knows a lot about the history of the steps and the story lines. (BM The reason why) Exactly – and that’s what type of person I am. I’m a very emotional person, so every movement that I do has to have a emotional feeling and it has to bring the story out, simply because I can’t do it any other way. There always has to be a reason. I have to be emotionally attached to the steps.

Elena Kunikova is never satisfied with anything that I do! I think she has given me three compliments, but the good thing is that every time I go back with her I get something. Paquita for instance – every time I work with her there is always more nuances and more style comes out. Like the last time I worked with her it was even down to my finger tips – for a half an hour piece for somebody to critic every single finger movement you make… But really that is how they train.

Chase Johnsey as Yakatarina Verbosovich in Don Quixote.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey as Yakatarina Verbosovich in Don Quixote.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Well that’s the Russian tradition to have a very strong association with a coach. And you are doing that – Russian ballerina having proper Russian coaching.

And it’s amazing to have that knowledge. Because when you go on stage it’s like “OK, I’m prepared.” I work with Elena Kunikova every couple of months then I go on tour knowing that I have things to work on. I have material to chew on. Because I’m not one to be like “OK – I have arrived in this role” – it’s all constant evolution.

Have you ever thought about doing a full, serious, Swan Lake? If a normal company said they would like to try it, would you do a full-on, straight, Swan Lake?

I would. Because I’ve done both – I’ve done Odette and Odile. So I already know that I can do both of them. In the context… like as far as illusion goes, I get a lot of reviews that say “Oh I bring the illusion of a ballerina”. (BM: No, no, no – you are a ballerina!). Thank you. Or I have like a female physique – that’s what I mean. But in context if I stood next to an actual ballerina – women don’t have shoulder muscles like this and they don’t have thick necks like this. But in context to the other dancers here I do look more feminine. So it could actually be terribly wrong because obviously I’ve never danced as a female next to other females. But that would be my only concern. I think I would do it with the understanding that the people in the audience are going to know that I’m a man dancing a female role. Just in case I look like a lumberjack in a tutu!

Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour.© Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour. © Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)

I don’t think you would at all. I think it would be interesting as to how you told the world what it was – it throws up so many questions about what is a ballerina? Well it’s a state of mind and training. So does sex have so much to do with it in a way? It’s an odd thing.

I just did an interview with a girl – she did a thesis on gender roles in ballet. And for me the interesting thing is that it’s not that I associate with the female steps, or the female attire, it’s with the story lines and the characters – that’s what I associate with and that’s what I love. And they are actually a lot more interesting compared to the male – a lot of times they’re just jerks and they make stupid mistakes about love and they are just idiots. And I’m not like that – I am like a OCD, an over-analytical sensitive person.

The gender roles are blurring I guess, especially with the Miley Cyrus gender blur.

There was that Austrian singer in the Eurovision Song Contest…

Conchita Wurst. It was her talent that won everyone over. She can really, or he, I don’t know… Conchita can really really sing and touch people despite what she looks like. Which is sort of what we do.

Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour.© Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour. © Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)

It is – down to talent. Agree it’s all becoming very blurred. I think it’s just a matter of time before a ballerina role is taken by somebody who is not a usual ballerina sex… but is a ballerina

Yeah. If that were ever offered I wouldn’t be able to say no!

I should think not. Are there any partners you’d secretly like to dance with like Roberto Bolle or any of the big male dancers?

Roberto Bolle I really like – I would like to dance with him… See it’s hard, because chemistry is a big thing that I talk about. I’m very controlling in my parts. So chemistry is one thing that I work very hard on with my partners. So it’s hard to feel a chemistry, but Roberto Bolle I’ve seen his acting and I think it would be amazing. Like if he would be willing to take me as seriously as he does other ballerinas then yes for sure. Him or Vasiliev. (BM: Vasiliev – that would be fantastic fun). I would love to dance with him, because in Don Quixote (DonQ) I’ve been compared a lot to Osipova, so I would be curious to, you know, see how I size up! {much mirth} I’m trying to think of any other males… Oh I would love to dance with James Whiteside. Simply because he’s very openly gay and he’s able to change into all of his characters and I really like that.

Chase Johnsey and Paolo Cervellera in Don Quixote.© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey and Paolo Cervellera in Don Quixote.
© Zoran Jelenic. (Click image for larger version)

What other roles would you really love to do? Not necessarily in the Trocks…

Well, I would love to do Theme – Theme and Variations by Balanchine. Because I’m a fast dancer – I have to dance fast. And it’s known as the hardest thing that a ballerina can do.

Is there a Trocks Romeo and Juliet?

No. I would like to do Juliet. I’ve never done Giselle, but I would want to do the full length Giselle – you know: mad scene, into the second act. Or Coppelia – I would really like to do Coppelia. Sleeping Beauty I’ve thought about, but… I don’t know… I don’t know… Maybe more Balanchine stuff like Western Symphony. I would LOVE to do Western Symphony. Or an In The Middle Somewhat Elevated parody.

I think that’s the one thing the Trocks are lacking – Forsythe.

I agree, I agree. I think the music is hard to get around though: Thom Willems.

Do you have any tips for budding ballerinas?

Let’s see. I was just talking with somebody from the Scottish Ballet because we were both wearing leather jackets and we were like sort of doing the rebel ballerina look. And it turned out she was one of the their Cinderellas. We were talking and saying how being rebellious, and doing things your way, and doing things like acting, is so important – it’s beyond having the perfect technical facility, beyond having the arched feet, beyond all of the pyrotechnics. Ultimately ballet is a fine art and you always need to let the story move you. The steps tell the story – it’s not enough just to wear the costume. And that’s one thing I’d tell students. Also when I teach I always tell them that you have to take into account the atmosphere and the mood of the music you are dancing to. Like, Paquita, for example, is very grand and elegant and your body has to sing that. Your body has to become that music, through the movement. And DonQe is very wild so you have to become that music. Your dancing has to match the atmosphere of the music. And in Swan Lake everything has to be wilting, fragile and water-like.

Those are the things that I personally like to see and that I don’t see enough of. I used to see this in videos of the 60s and 70s – like Maya Plisetskaya is one of my all-time favourite ballerinas. Because she could do that – she could go from Kitri to Swan Lake. She wasn’t a one-role ballerina.

Oh, and if you over-think things then it sort of loses the magic – at some point. Kunikova says it always has to look like it’s the first time you have ever done it. And if you over-think it, it tends to lose that. And a lot of the big ballet companies look that way – it’s careful. But people don’t want careful. (BM: the great ballerinas, they are always playing with their roles and will subtly always change something) Yes – that’s it absolutely… I always screw up something! I swear I have done really well about 5 times in the 12 years I’ve been here. (BM: I think the reviews say otherwise.) Well hopefully I cover it up well enough. But for example I love Maria Callas – I love her because when I listen to her it sounds like it’s the first time she’s ever sung it. Or it sounds spontaneous and RAW. You know, fresh, even when she sings Casta Diva. By the time she was super thin and probably not well and she couldn’t make it through a whole opera but even then it still seemed fresh, raw and real. And that’s what I love. That’s what I try to always remember – it’s to keep that inspiration, to keep it FRESH.

Carlos Renedo and Chase Johnsey, life partners, ready for work as Maria Paranova and Yakatarina Verbosovich.© TROCKS. (Click image for larger version)
Carlos Renedo and Chase Johnsey, life partners, ready for work as Maria Paranova and Yakatarina Verbosovich. © TROCKS. (Click image for larger version)

You mentioned teaching – teaching within the Trocks or do you ever teach and coach outside?

I mentor. I don’t have an official position. But I sort of mentor some of the younger guys – they come to me and want help. I never push it because I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. Outside the Trocks I do – I do Ballet Master work in Florida, normally for The Nutcracker, which I CANT STAND but I do it anyway. (BM: Oh what a shame – you’d be a nice Sugar Plum) {much laughter} But teaching and coaching inspires me and it teaches me just as much as I teach the other person. The most interesting thing is that I learned you can’t talk to every single person the same way. Every single ego needs something different. That’s an interesting thing as a teacher. Like as a dancer you are just you and you have all things coming at you but then as the teacher it’s the opposite. Then you are having to accommodate to everybody. So it actually gives me sympathy for all the ballet teachers that I ever had!

That leads into what other things in life are there outside of the Trocks… what interests you…

Chase Johnsey as Serenity Lopez in full Miss Continental Pagaent mode. Click on picture to see full entry/page.© West Coast Continental Pageant.
Chase Johnsey as Serenity Lopez in full Miss Continental Pagaent mode. Click on picture to see full entry/page.
© West Coast Continental Pageant.
Well I’m person that is forever curious. So like I have so many interests – I love teaching, I do make-up, I do drag – I do club drag – I sew and make costumes. (BM: A lot of dancers knit I’ve noticed.) I knit!! Especially on tour, especially when it’s cold. And I have a blog and I have a YouTube channel. I have so many interests and I never ever want to limit myself. Because the things that have impacted my career the most are the things that had nothing to do with ballet. Those experiences like having relationships and experimenting with other art, the doing of other art and things – that make you a better artist. It’s also a good distraction because people can get so obsessed.

When do you get your most satisfaction from being a dancer? After the show, before the show? During the show?

I’d say the most satisfaction is when the audience laugh, I make them laugh – like really, really, really, laugh – not just chuckle. When they just die laughing – that’s an amazing feeling. And also when they scream. And when you do something well – it’s amazing. For DonQ, our version’s really hard, like it’s the whole ballet compressed, so just getting through that is good enough for me. I just get through it alive then I’m happy.

I think the audience gives me everything – because I really do want to entertain them. I really do want to make them happy and laugh – and that just shows me I’ve done my job.

I must leave you now because you need to get ready. But there is one thing I wanted to say – I dipped into your blog, which I didn’t know about before and the entries are really thoughtful, well argued, open and honest. It’s good.

Thank you. The thing about the blog is that I only write when I have something really on my mind, when I have something in my heart or something I’m going through.

Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour.© Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)
Chase Johnsey in his dressing room, backstage at the Brighton Dome during the UK 2015 autumn tour. © Ambra Vernuccio. (Click image for larger version)

My next blog is going to be called “Anti-Climax Depression”. It’s where I had an amazing run in London, and I got really good reviews and it was one of the best dancing times of my life, but then what happens when all those reviews are gone? Then you are left with like a clean slate, and you have to make new goals. So in between the time where you have basked in that spotlight and you make a new goal there is that in between moment where you feel empty and you don’t have anything to work towards. And it’s the thing that all artists suffer. And that’s one thing that I’m trying to figure out – a way that I can write about that, and if kids read it I want them to know the higher the lift, the harder the drop. And that’s a very real thing even with pop stars – but on a magnified scale. They have a top hit and then I’m sure they are depressed: Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears… Ultimately, after talking with people about it, with friends, you have to keep it moving. No matter the bad or the good – you have to sit the glass down and keep moving forward. Whether it’s an amazing set of reviews or a TV show or something terrible that happened to you, you have to keep moving forward. You can’t get stuck in the past. So that is one blog that I’m thinking about.

I really try to write things that I wish somebody had really told me. That’s the most important thing – just like teaching or just like dancing – I try to be the ballerina I would like to see. I try to be the teacher I wish I had. That’s sort of one of my mantras in life. Or I want to be the husband I would like to have! {more laughing}

Thank you so much for your time. It’s 18:30 – should I tell people that the show will start late tonight?!

Oh No – they will go on without me!!

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