Black ballet dancer who had to ‘white up’ for Swan Lake wins Berlin racism case

26 April 2021, 17:34

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

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

French dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes, who accused Germany’s most prestigious ballet company of racism, has been awarded compensation and had her contract renewed.

Chloé Lopes Gomes, the first Black female dancer at Berlin’s Staatsballett, has been awarded €16,000 (£14,000) in compensation and had her contract renewed, after she accused the company of institutional racism.

On Instagram the dancer said her case “was a small victory but a huge step for the ballet world”.

Lopes Gomes, who joined as a corps de ballet member in 2018, spoke out about her experience in November 2020, 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 had forced her to wear white makeup in a production of Swan Lake, to “blend in”. She claimed 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.”

In January, in an effort to tackle racism at the company, the Staatsballett held workshops for all staff on diversity and discrimination, and pledged to create a culture of openness. Acting director Christiane Theobald described the case as “a wake-up call”.

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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 said the ballet mistress told her on several occasions her skin colour was not aesthetically acceptable and even 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”.

The French ballerina, 29, spoke 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 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 claimed that at the company, there was no 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.”

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 objected to the reasoning, saying “I know I was fired because I’m Black. From the beginning, I didn’t stand a chance.”

Under her court settlement, the company said, Lopes Gomes’s contract will be renewed until the end of the 2021/22 season.

Christiane Theobald said: “I regret the discrimination which Chloé Lopes Gomes described, which we take very seriously and are addressing comprehensively.”

Lopes Gomes said on Instagram: “I realised that even if I feared the consequences, speaking out was the best thing to do. I encourage everyone to break the silence. And again thank you for all your support.”