The first black female dancer at Berlin’s principal ballet company has accused the institution of racial harassment, claiming she was repeatedly told she did not fit in because of her skin colour.
Chloé Lopes Gomes, a French citizen, who joined the Staatsballett as a corps de ballet member in 2018, said she had faced recurrent racial abuse from her ballet mistress. In an interview with the Guardian she also accuses the company of institutional racism after managers failed to act even after various incidents were brought to their attention.
Lopes Gomes, 29, said the dance teacher forced her to wear white makeup to “blend in” with other dancers in Swan Lake, and she had refused to give her a white veil for a performance of La Bayadére, telling her: “It’s because you’re black.” She said the teacher repeatedly told her her skin colour was not aesthetically acceptable and used her to recreate a painting of a black dancer surrounded by white dancers, telling her she would show her friends that the company “also has one of those”.
She said that an atmosphere of fear at the company, which was typically found throughout the dance world, “meant that whilst my fellow dancers often felt uncomfortable at my treatment they were mostly too scared to speak up.”
The scandal has triggered a large response across social media, attracting the support of Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, as well as dancers from Ballet Opera de Paris, English Ballet and the organisation Blacks in Ballet. Berlin’s ballet world was already reeling from the results of an investigation which confirmed physical and psychological abuse of pupils had carried on unchecked for years at the state ballet school.
In a statement this week the Staatsballett’s interim artistic director, Christiane Theobald, said: “The racist and discriminatory behaviour that was brought to light in our company deeply moves us … The necessary skills and tools to deal with issues of discrimination need to be worked on thoroughly.”
Lopes Gomes said she had felt pride when she joined the company in early 2018. “It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream,” she said. “I had not known I was the Staatsballett’s first black female dancer, until I was interviewed by some local journalists who told me.” The Berlin tabloid, BZ, ran its story under the headline Why This Swan is Something Special and marvelled that as a black dancer, she would now be “playing a snow flake” in The Nutcracker.
“Of course, Berlin is not as ethnically diverse as London or Paris,” Lopes Gomes said. “But I was happy that I had the chance to show other young black girls that they could do the same.”
But she said joy quickly turned to anxiety when she was made to feel she did not fit in. “The day after my audition and the ballet mistress told a fellow dancer of mine she thought it had been a mistake to hire me because a black woman spoils the aesthetics. This same woman spent the next two years discriminating against me,” she said.
“I was under her supervision most of the time so I could not avoid her. We began with Swan Lake. She was always correcting me, telling me I was out of line. But I know I was not. It’s not that I can’t take criticism, but we’re talking about the basics that you learn when you are three years old.”
As the premiere neared, the dance teacher told Lopes Gomes she would have to whiten her skin.
“She said to me everyone needs to powder their skin white to blend in. I told her I would never look white, I am black. She just told me I’d simply need to use more powder.”
Lopes Gomes approached the company’s then co-artistic director, Johannes Öhman, who told her she should never have to whiten her skin. “The ballet mistress was annoyed that I had effectively undermined her authority,” she said. “She was angry and she became increasingly unpleasant towards me.”
The teacher has refused to comment since allegations first appeared in Germany.
Lopes Gomes, who trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia, said because she spoke no German and the teacher, a German, spoke no French or English, they initially communicated in Russian. “It meant that my colleagues often didn’t understand her throw-away remarks to me, like: ‘You’re not in line and we see that you stick out because you’re black’.
“When she was handing out the Shades’ veils for La Bayadére, and reached me, she laughed, and in front of everyone said: ‘Of course I can’t give you one: the veil is white and you’re black’. I felt so humiliated,” Lopes Gomes said.
The Guardian has spoken to another dancer who witnessed the veil incident and has corroborated Lopes Gomes’ account.
Lopes Gomes claimed that when she again approached Öhman, he told her she should not accept such behaviour towards her. “But he said there was little he could do as, as a civil servant, the teacher has a lifetime contract which effectively means she can never be fired.” Lopes Gomes said she turned down his offer to talk to the teacher “because I feared it would only exacerbate the situation”.
When Öhman unexpectedly announced in January that he would be leaving the company Gomes said the treatment worsened.
“On the very day he announced his departure, the ballet mistress told me that from now on I was going to have to use white powder whether I liked it or not. I knew I was on my own.
“It was horrible. My skin was like this grey-green tone. I felt like the ugly duckling. It just amazed me they couldn’t accept the idea of there being a black swan,” she said.
She had bumped into Theobald in a corridor while wearing the makeup. “She asked me why I had whitened my skin, that I was not supposed to. But nothing happened.”
Lopes Gomes said the company has no safe way for dancers to report discrimination or maltreatment and that dancers lived in fear of being dismissed if they complained. “They show little sense of responsibility towards their dancers,” she said.
She also said she had been appalled to discover on joining, that the practice of blackfacing dancers was considered normal, after she saw young white children applied with black makeup for a production of The Nutcracker.
Lopes Gomes said she was told in October by Theobald that the company would not be renewing her contract. “They said because of the Covid pandemic they were letting some dancers go and that they thought I would be better off in a smaller company,” she said. “She insisted to me that race was not the reason they were firing me, as well as admitting that it was awful what had happened to me.”
She was however subsequently cast in Covid-adapted productions of Giselle and Swan Lake, for which the number of dancers was cut by half. “Instead of 24 dancers, they chose 12. If I was so substandard, why would they have chosen me?” she asked.
Theobald has said she only became aware of Lopes Gomes’ treatment after she wrote a letter to the Staatsballett management in September, signed by several of her fellow dancers, detailing the racist incidents. She said she was “deeply shocked” at the revelations.
Her statement said the Staatsballett planned a series of workshops for its employees, as well as a restructuring of the company and a review of its longstanding repertory customs.
A Staatsballett spokeswoman said that she was not able to comment on personnel issues, but confirmed that the company was now undergoing an “extensive process of reappraisal”. It would not comment on whether it would consider rehiring Lopes Gomes, or dismissing the ballet teacher if the allegations were legally proven.
Berlin’s minister for culture, Klaus Lederer, has said he is “appalled” by the accusations but a spokesman said while he was fully aware of the affair, he was “not able to interfere in a matter concerning labour law”.