First Black female dancer at Berlin’s Staatsballett had to ‘white up’ for Swan Lake

9 December 2020, 17:25

Chloé Lopes Gomes claims racial harassment at Berlin's Staatsballett
Chloé Lopes Gomes claims racial harassment at Berlin's Staatsballett. Picture: Marek Wójciak/Instagram/Chloé Lopes Gomes

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

French ballerina Chloé Lopes Gomes has accused Germany’s most prestigious ballet company of failing to protect her against multiple acts of discrimination and racism.

Berlin’s principal ballet company has said it aspires to a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and racism after its first Black female dancer, Chloé Lopes Gomes, claimed multiple counts of racial harassment.

Lopes Gomes, who joined the Staatsballett as a corps de ballet member in 2018, spoke out about her experience in November this year, to German magazine Der Spiegel. She said she faced racial harassment at the Berlin company, saying she was repeatedly told her skin colour meant she did not fit in.

She specifically claimed racial abuse from her ballet mistress, who she said forced her to wear white makeup in a production of Swan Lake, to “blend in”. She claims the same teacher refused to give her a white veil for a performance of La Bayadère and said: “I can’t give you one: The veil is white and you’re Black.”

Lopes Gomes says the teacher told her on several occasions her skin colour was not aesthetically acceptable and used her to recreate a painting of a black dancer surrounded by white dancers, saying she would show her friends that the company “also has one of those”.

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Chloé Lopes Gomes joined the Staatsballett as a corps de ballet member
Chloé Lopes Gomes joined the Staatsballett as a corps de ballet member. Picture: Marek Wójciak

Lopes Gomes has accused the company of institutional racism, saying she told managers about the acts of harassment, but they failed to act.

In an interview with Pointe magazine, she claims she spoke several times to Johannes Öhman, co-artistic director at the time. “[He] said it was unacceptable but explained to me that she had a lifetime contract, which means you’re untouchable in Germany.”

The French ballerina, 29, has spoken out about a climate of fear at the company, which “meant that whilst my fellow dancers often felt uncomfortable at my treatment, they were mostly too scared to speak up.”

Several anonymous dancers have since backed up her account.

Lopes Gomes, who trained in Marseille and at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and previously danced for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Nice, said she felt pride on joining in 2018. “It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream,” she told The Guardian.

She said her position, as the company’s first Black female dancer, made her “happy that I had the chance to show other young black girls that they could do the same.”

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But, the dancer claims, the company “doesn’t have a safe way to report discrimination or harassment”.

“There is still this idea in the ballet world that you have to suffer to make it. We – the younger generation – can’t accept that anymore. Ballet must reflect society. I don’t want to be abused just to be able to dance. I want to be happy in my life, not just when I step onstage.”

In a statement, the Staatsballett’s interim artistic director Christiane Theobald said: “I am sorry to see that there is an employee at the Staatsballett Berlin who had to endure a very stressful situation for a long time and that the situation could not be resolved beforehand.

“Discrimination and racism is a highly sensitive issue that is of importance to society as a whole, including the Staatsballett Berlin. It is very important to me to live a discrimination-free corporate culture and to implement it where it does not yet exist 100 percent.”

Lopes Gomes was told in October that her contract, due to expire in July 2021, would not be renewed due to the COVID-19 crisis. She has objected to the reasoning, saying “I know I was fired because I’m Black. From the beginning, I didn’t stand a chance.”

An internal investigation into Lopes Gomes’ allegations is underway.