Chloé Lopes Gomes Speaks Out About Racial Harassment at Staatsballett Berlin

November 30, 2020

In November, the French dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes went public with accusations of institutional racism against Staatsballett Berlin, first reported by the German magazine

Der Spiegel
. In the article, several anonymous dancers confirm her account. Lopes Gomes, 29, who trained in Marseille and at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, danced for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Nice and Béjart Ballet Lausanne before joining Staatsballett Berlin as a corps de ballet member in 2018, under then co-directors Johannes Öhman and Sasha Waltz. After the company told her in October that her contract, which ends in July, would not be renewed, she shared her story with Pointe.

I didn’t know I was the first Black female dancer at Staatsballett Berlin when I joined the company in 2018. I learned that from German journalists who came to interview me almost immediately. I grew up in a mixed-race family—my mother was French, my father from Cape Verde—and I was educated to believe that we all have the same opportunities.

My brother and my sister also went to prestigious dance schools [her brother, Isaac Lopes Gomes, is now a dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet], and I didn’t really think about my skin color while I was training. I spent four years at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. I didn’t necessarily feel safe in the streets in Russia because people stared at me, but I was still awarded scholarships and my teacher loved me.

I quickly realized that auditions and company life were a different story. The day after my audition in Berlin, in early 2018, one particular ballet mistress told a colleague of mine in the company that she didn’t think the Staatsballett should hire me because a Black woman in a corps de ballet isn’t aesthetically pleasing. This ballet mistress was in charge of the corps, and for over two years, she discriminated against me because of my skin color.

That colleague warned me before I started, but I was hopeful I would also work with other ballet masters. No such luck: I was under her supervision 90 percent of the time, and we started with Swan Lake. I was one of six new women, and the ballet mistress immediately took a dislike to me. She bombarded me with corrections, and when the premiere arrived, she told me that all the women needed to color their skin with white powder. I told her that I would never look white, and she replied: “You’ll just put on more powder than the others.”

I spoke to Johannes [Öhman, co-artistic director at the time], who decided I should stay as I was. The ballet mistress took the fact that I went to him as an affront, as if I’d undermined her authority, and she started saying overtly racist things.

Since I didn’t speak German and she didn’t speak English, we communicated in Russian initially, so my colleagues didn’t understand when she would say casually: “You’re not in line and that’s all we see because you’re Black.” And then, when she was handing out the Shades’ veils for La Bayadère, she got to me and laughed, in front of other dancers: “I can’t give you one: The veil is white and you’re Black.”

I again told Johannes, who said it was unacceptable but explained to me that she had a lifetime contract, which means you’re untouchable in Germany. Johannes asked if I wanted him to talk to her, and I said no, because I was worried it would get even worse.

I was so anxious and unwell that I ended up with a metatarsal fracture. I should have been back after two months, but six months later, I was still in pain, and the doctors didn’t know why—until a neurologist told me it was linked to stress and prescribed antidepressants. Suddenly, the pain went away completely.

Johannes left Staatsballett Berlin abruptly last January. On the day he announced it, the ballet mistress told me that now I was going to have to use white powder. I ran into the current interim director, Christiane Theobald, in a hallway while in makeup for Swan Lake. She asked why I had whitened my skin and said that I wasn’t supposed to do it, but the ballet mistress was in charge of rehearsals and didn’t leave me much choice. I felt like the company’s ugly little duckling.

This ballet mistress also had me and a few colleagues re-create a painting of a Black dancer surrounded by white dancers. When I asked what the photo was for, she said she wanted to show her friends that they had “one of those” too in the company, as if I were a zoo animal.

My colleagues didn’t want to take the picture, but there is an atmosphere of fear in the dance world. The ballet masters are the ones who are in the studio with us all the time, who hold the keys to our evolution. If you’re on a one-year or two-year contract, it’s very easy for the company not to renew it, whereas some ballet masters are employed for life. They’re more privileged than even some directors, and that creates a power imbalance: We should be on an equal footing contract-wise.

The Staatsballett doesn’t have a safe way to report discrimination or harassment, and there was still blackface in the repertoire when I joined. In Nutcracker, some children were required to paint their faces black, while I stood in the corps behind them.

Against a gray backdrop and wearing a gray leotard, Chlou00e9 Lopes Gomes lifts her left leg into a high grand battement u00e0 la seconde on pointe.
Dean Barucija, Courtesy Lopes Gomes

I was called to a pre-dismissal meeting with Christiane Theobald in October. She did not dance professionally, so she said she relied on the ballet masters’ advice. I was told that they needed to let some dancers go due to COVID, and that I would be happier in a smaller company, because I hadn’t been onstage much. I explained why that was, and what had happened to me. She admitted it was terrible but said my race wasn’t the reason they were firing me.

I know I was fired because I’m Black. From the beginning, I didn’t stand a chance. Christiane Theobald is part of an old-fashioned system: She has worked for the company’s administration since 2004, and she let me go even after I told her about the racism I encountered. My contract runs through July 31: I’ve been cast in reduced, COVID-friendly versions of Giselle and Swan Lake and I still want to work.

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.

Editor’s note: In a statement to
Pointe, Theobald, who cannot comment on personnel matters, says that an internal investigation into Lopes Gomes’ allegations is underway, and that the company plans to conduct antiracism training and workshops for all employees. “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.”