Home - T Singapore

A Group of Gay Male Ballet Dancers Redefining Masculinity

By David Ebershoff

From left: Preston Chamblee, in the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet; Harper Watters, a soloist at Houston Ballet; Russell Janzen, a principal at New York City Ballet; Whiteside; Silva; Blaine Hoven, a soloist at ABT; John Lam, a principal at Boston Ballet.
Bon Duke
From left: Preston Chamblee, in the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet; Harper Watters, a soloist at Houston Ballet; Russell Janzen, a principal at New York City Ballet; Whiteside; Silva; Blaine Hoven, a soloist at ABT; John Lam, a principal at Boston Ballet.

1. The Ballerino

When I was 15, I met a dancer from Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The company had come to Los Angeles to dance in the Olympic Arts Festival, and my parents volunteered to host a post-performance dinner in our backyard. I recall about 200 people — family friends, Olympic officials and maybe 25 dancers — eating curry (is that right?) off paper plates. But that’s not what this is about. No, this is about the ballerino — my word for him — I met and what he represented to a lonely gay kid in Southern California in 1984, a kid who had never before met another gay person. Earlier that evening, I had seen the dancer turn, leap and smile onstage, expressing through the mute language of ballet who he was. Something about his movement told me he was gay, and I felt he was dancing not only for himself but for me. Onstage, the ballerino wore brown tights that showed the trunks of his thighs, and everything else. Now he was in loose linen pants with a drawstring belt and an open collar that exposed the rod of his clavicle.

He said hello. I could barely speak. He might have said, “Lovely party”, but that was it, he was on his way. The isolation of my queer youth was about to return. Out of nowhere, I told him he was my favourite ballet dancer in the world. He seemed startled, and a little embarrassed, but he came to understand what I was trying to say: “If you need someone to talk to, you can write me, care of the Ballet.” The next day, I rode my bike to the library and looked up the address in Winnipeg and sent a letter trying to express something about myself I had never expressed before. Two months later, he wrote back, apologising: He’d been on tour. Although time has devoured that sheet of paper, I still remember the gentle message embedded in his words: One day, you too will find yourself.


2. Nobody But Myself

On a muggy afternoon in Harlem, Preston Chamblee, 23, a member of New York City Ballet since 2015, says to me, “I hope to be part of a generation that can change the boundaries of what ballet can do, a generation that says we’re going to represent everyone, not just the stories that have been told before.”

We’re looking at a Facebook video of Chamblee and his fellow company member Taylor Stanley, 27, in a romantic pas de deux in the choreographer Lauren Lovette’s “Not Our Fate”. The ballet depicts a love story between two men of colour not as subtext but as central narrative. When it premiered last fall at New York’s David H. Koch Theater, it sent a jolt of relevance through an art form that often feels mired in another era. It’s a thrilling duet, both men in white T-shirts and black pants moving towards and away from each other, embracing and rejecting and succumbing to desire and love. Rather than putting a man into a woman’s role, Lovette choreographed the piece for two men; the audience can see the dancers negotiating their positions, just as queer couples negotiate theirs. (I showed the clip to a gay friend, who said, “That basically sums up my relationship with my boyfriend.”)

Men have danced together before in ballet, typically in expressions of friendship or rivalry, such as the death duet between Tybalt and Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet”, first choreographed in Czechoslovakia by Ivo Vana Psota in 1938. We’ve seen choreographers invert genders, often casting men as Cinderella’s evil stepsisters for a laugh. Yet Chamblee had never performed a pas de deux explicitly depicting two men in love. Shortly after “Not Our Fate” premiered, Justin Peck, City Ballet’s resident choreographer, further challenged ballet’s gender norms when he adapted the woman’s role in the pas de deux at the heart of his 2017 “The Times Are Racing”, pairing Stanley with Daniel Applebaum, a 32-year-old gay soloist with the company.

If you didn’t know much about classical ballet, you might think it’s an obvious home for queer artists and narratives, but it’s more complicated than that: Ballet, of course, has always had gay dancers and choreographers and homoeroticism, but it’s an artistic discipline shaped by tradition. The canon is small; the institutions are formal and steeped in history; and the masters who cast the principal male roles — Romeo, Don Quixote, Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake” — sometimes select dancers who embody the conventional male hero, onstage and off. To have a public queer identity, or to be perceived as too effeminate, can still affect a dancer’s ability to land these lead roles. It’s one of ballet’s ironies — the outside world has long viewed the male dancer as the antithesis of conventional masculinity, yet the culture inside ballet can still be somewhat bro-y. (A recent lawsuit by a female dancer against City Ballet, three of its former male principals and a financial donor, who were accused of sharing sexually explicit images of female dancers, cites the company’s “fraternity-like atmosphere”, which City Ballet denies.) This is one reason “Not Our Fate” means so much to Chamblee. For the first time, he says, “I really got to be absolutely nobody but myself onstage.”

Chamblee is part of a new generation of dancers who are collapsing the boundaries between queerness and maleness in ballet by challenging its, and the culture’s, preconceived ideas of masculinity. They use social media, especially Instagram, to express themselves creatively and corporeally, building an audience much larger than what a company alone can bring them. Their work onstage and online rejects the idea that a male dancer must store his queerness in his locker. They see no contradiction in the serious artist who dances on ballet’s largest stages and also posts videos of himself, say, dancing on a treadmill in platform heels. In doing so, these dancers are taking some of the starch out of ballet. Last June, London’s Royal Ballet hung the rainbow flag outside its historic home for the first time. For Marcelino Sambé, 24, a soloist at the company, “it tells everyone it’s an open institution. Come on in.”

Bon DukeIrlan Silva, a soloist at Boston Ballet, photographed at the American Ballet Theatre studios in New York.
Irlan Silva, a soloist at Boston Ballet, photographed at the American Ballet Theatre studios in New York.

3. Masc Feme Butch Kween

There's a hashtag for everything on Instagram; when you type #gayballet, you will come across men in tights and training shorts, and eventually you might find James Whiteside, most likely bare-chested with a large scratch tattooed on his ribs. Whiteside, 34, is a principal dancer with New York’s American Ballet Theatre and, since joining the company in 2012, one of its major stars; critics applaud his power and energy and the depth he brings to his characters. For the choreographer Lar Lubovitch’s 2015 production of “Othello”, Whiteside didn’t want to waste the opportunity of working with a gay collaborator — his Iago was infused with what he calls “queer rage”. This month, at New York’s Joyce Theatre, Whiteside opened the celebrated choreographer Arthur Pita’s new ballet, “The Tenant”, based on Roland Topor’s 1964 French novel and Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of the same name, which questions ideas of identity and gender.

“My personality was maybe something that ABT hadn’t encountered before,” Whiteside says. “I would come in ‘yaass kween’-ing everyone and doing drag queen walks, and that could have been so easily misconstrued as not taking the work seriously.” But Whiteside takes his work very seriously because he doesn’t want to, as he puts it, go back.

Back to his late teens in South Boston when people regularly threw rocks at him and called him the F-word on his way to and from Boston Ballet. “I found myself a target anywhere I went,” he says. Like anyone who’s danced through fire and come out burnished, Whiteside can now laugh at his past and turn it into a personal statement and meta joke on Instagram. In one post, he’s flexing his biceps while wearing a pink bandanna, a black tutu and a tank top that says “Milk’s Gym” (Milk is the drag name of his boyfriend, Daniel Donigan, who appeared on two seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”). Whiteside’s caption: “Masc femme butch kween horse peasant monarch wealthy broke realness.” Then a shrugging-guy emoji.

What he hears most from his 171,000 Instagram followers is that he looks like he’s having fun. And he is. Dancing with ABT has been his dream since he was a boy, when he attended a gala and visited the principals’ red-velvet hallway backstage. He loves ballet and wants others to fall in love with it, too, and he hopes his feed will bring more people into the theatre. But it bugs him that so much of ballet Instagram — his own at times, too — is “dancer thirst trap”. The twerking and the tights and the belts are a misleading representation of the work, the almost inhuman physical effort behind a dancer doing splits in the air. “No one’s going to understand what we really do from Instagram, where everything has a smile on it and a cigarette in its mouth,” he says. “Ballet is one of the most physically demanding things in the world, but you have to seem like you’re just taking a whiz.”

Whiteside has a point. But like any protagonist, he can’t see himself as we do. Before social media, ballet on video — think of those tame PBS broadcasts — appealed to a specialised audience. One reason is its perspective: The cameras, way up in the auditorium, show ballet from a limited point of view. But on Instagram, the close-up angles, taped ankles, the veins and arteries flooded with blood, give us ballet as the dancer experiences it. Rather than removing the magic of a darkened theatre, this intimacy brings us closer to the my-God-how-does-the-human-body-do-that awe that ballet inspires.

In one post, we see Whiteside’s backside, naked but for the straps of a well-worn dance belt. But this isn’t just a thirst trap. It’s a hard, strangely shaped, almost gnarled piece of flesh. The caption — “Dancer butt” — tells us we’re looking at decades of sacrifice knotted up in muscle and skin. It shows us the feat behind the art, reminding us that the foundation of dance is physical strength — a quality associated with traditional masculinity. Whiteside is an athlete-artist restless with ideas and energy, and Instagram gives him a space arguably bigger than a company’s stage to experiment with what it now means to be a great dancer.

Bon DukeFrom left: Rhys Kosakowski, formerly of Houston Ballet; Jose Sebastian, in the corps de ballet at ABT; Taylor Stanley, a principal at New York City Ballet; Tyler Maloney, in the corps de ballet at ABT; Patrick Yocum, a principal at Boston Ballet; Calvin Royal III, a soloist at ABT.
From left: Rhys Kosakowski, formerly of Houston Ballet; Jose Sebastian, in the corps de ballet at ABT; Taylor Stanley, a principal at New York City Ballet; Tyler Maloney, in the corps de ballet at ABT; Patrick Yocum, a principal at Boston Ballet; Calvin Royal III, a soloist at ABT.

4. Represent

Harper Watters, 26, is many things: acclaimed Houston Ballet soloist; son of two former college professors; host of a backstage chat show called “The Pre Show” on his YouTube channel; a black gay man from New Hampshire now living in Texas; a lean, inventive artist who dances with the freedom that comes from knowing who you are; a devourer of pop culture. On his website, he calls himself the Wendy Williams of ballet. When I talk to him, he elaborates: “If Wendy Williams and Beyoncé had a love child who they put in ballet, it would 100 per cent be me.”

In one episode of “The Pre Show”, filmed behind the scenes of a performance of “Swan Lake” in Minneapolis, he and his fellow dancer Hayden Stark sit at the mirror applying their characters’ makeup while talking about college, sex, queer persecution in Russia and facial hair. In many ways, this could be a live-stream of two young gay men getting ready for a night out at the bars, but over the course of the 16.5-minute segment, the dancers transform into their ballet roles. Dressed as a swan hunter, Watters talks to the camera in a butch tone and says he and Stark are about to go out and do “boy things” like seducing women and fighting, but then they laugh and return to their natural voices — distinctly, unapologetically gay — and clarify, “a different kind of boy thing.”

If ballet feels remote to many, especially younger people, this type of access and authenticity connects the medium to today’s cultural currents. Watters says he’s influenced as much by classical ballet as by reality television, including “America’s Top Model” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. He’s faced some backlash online about how “represents” the Houston Ballet, which he joined as an apprentice in 2011, but that criticism seems out of step with what the word “representation” now means in our culture. “The Pre Show” is ostensibly about a dancer preparing for his roles, but its subtext is stereotypes — an artist owning, defying and subverting them as part of the process of becoming himself. Two years ago, before his promotion to demi-soloist, a director taught Watters an important lesson: Ballet isn’t really about how high your legs can go or how many turns you can do, but what you’re trying to say about yourself and the world. Every step has to have intention.

Bon DukeJames Whiteside, a principal at ABT.
James Whiteside, a principal at ABT.

5. Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

As a ballet student in Sweden, the dancer Pontus Lidberg, 41, had a hyper-masculine, almost cartoonish notion of what a ballerino should be — the guy who pulls up to the theatre on a motorcycle, muscles his way through “Quixote” and caps off the evening with a ballerina. This was the dominant narrative in the 1990s, when only a few male dancers were openly gay. He sees it as part of the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic that killed so many artists, including, in 1993, ballet’s global celebrity, Rudolf Nureyev, who cracked the door to his closet but never fully emerged from it. “I had no role models,” Lidberg says. “I had to create that myself.”

Lidberg has since become a leading choreographer around the world, developing works for companies such as City Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. In his latest piece, “Siren”, performed in October at the Joyce, he flips the genders in Homer’s “Odyssey”. Ulysses is a woman, and the sirens — the original temptations — are men. Its central theme is that existential desire to connect.

Like the dancers he mentors, Lidberg is part of a cohort of choreographers (some of whom are straight) expanding ballet by telling new stories, which includes Peck, Lovette and Joshua Beamish, whose 2015 piece “Burrow” depicts the arc of a relationship between two men, set to the music of the 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Last year, the Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s ballet for Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, based on the life of Nureyev, was postponed two days before its world premiere. The authorities arrested its director on suspicion of embezzling government funds, although many suspect the ballet’s frankness about its subject’s sexuality might have been the real issue. “Nureyev” opened five months later. (Possokhov declined to comment for this story.)

Watching ballet is ultimately ephemeral — “an experience that can never be relived,” Lidberg says. So, too, is the body, especially the dancer’s. “Ageing is very real, and for the dancer, it happens very quickly.” Rather than lamenting this, he embraces it, filming his work and releasing it on social media. In his 2007 ballet film, “The Rain”, he dances a pas de deux with a close male friend in a downpour to Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (1965). “My identity as a gay man has many layers,” Lidberg adds. He also tries to convey something he rarely sees in ballet — not just sexuality, but companionship and tenderness between men. In other words, love.

6. That Was Me

“I am a ballerina,” says Chase Johnsey. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career.” Johnsey, 33, danced principal female roles en pointe for more than a decade with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet comedy, but he left the company at the end of last year, after he began to identify as gender fluid. Johnsey, who uses male pronouns, says he and others felt harassed because “we don’t live up to some masculine ideal of what a gay man is.” (Trockadero says Johnsey’s claims were investigated and no evidence to support them was found.) Growing up in what he calls “the swamps of Florida”, Johnsey remembers watching the ballerinas in class and wanting nothing more than to dance like them.

An essential part of queerness is fluidity — between identities, expectations, definitions and that word no one likes, labels. And what is dance if not fluid — in motion, in music, in the blend between physical and artistic? Ballet is most powerful when it is most fluid. So, too, is the dancer, when he, or she, or they, moves fluidly. A dancer must move between roles — now Romeo, now a prince, now a ruby — just as a queer person moves between roles, finding comfort and creativity in that movement. But classical ballet isn’t fluid. It’s rigid with custom and stiff with history. “You have all these people who love the way it’s been for 200 years,” Johnsey says.

Johnsey made history this past June by dancing in the female corps in “The Sleeping Beauty” with English National Ballet. His dream now: to play the lead, Odette, in a major company’s production of “Swan Lake”, not as female but as gender fluid, which he defines as identifying as male in some contexts and female in others. He sees the artistic potential of bringing this to a character who transforms from swan to human and back. “If art reflects the state of the world, then I’m in the right place at the right time,” he says. It would seem that way: Lukas Dhont’s movie “Girl”, about a 15-year-old transgender ballerina, is Belgium’s much-lauded entry for the upcoming Academy Awards. And a revival of Matthew Bourne’s now-legendary 1995 “Swan Lake”, which features all-male swans, will open next month in London. But since the final curtain at the London Coliseum, Johnsey’s phone hasn’t rung. He now mentors young transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers. “I’ll probably never dance leading roles again,” he says, “but I don’t care because there are so many kids out there who contact me on Instagram who think they don’t have a fighting chance. I can give them that.”

Every dancer I spoke with has a story of how their art touched someone in unexpected ways, just as the ballerino from Winnipeg gave me something I could carry far into my future. Art is nothing if it does not connect, and these dancers are connecting with people who might previously have thought ballet could not, or would not, speak for them. Whiteside tells me about a letter he received from a woman who thinks her young son is gay. The boy loves to dance, the mother writes, and wants to be like Whiteside when he grows up. His classmates make fun of him for loving ballet, but the mother is proud of her son for staying resolute; seeing Whiteside become successful gives her hope as a parent. “I wrote her back and said that was me — headstrong little effeminate gay kid,” Whiteside says. He keeps the letter in his locker with his tights and his shoes, and when he thinks of it, he marvels: “You have no idea what you’re doing, and then someone’s a little more O.K. because of what you did.”