A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company

Advertisement
A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company
Chloé Lopes Gomes says she has faced racism while working with the prestigious ballet company, the Berlin Staatsballett.@pickledthoughtz
  • The Staatsballett Berlin's first Black female dancer says she has experienced racial discrimination at the prestigious German company.
  • Chloé Lopes Gomes told Insider that one ballet instructor made racist remarks and treated her differently.
  • According to Lopes Gomes, she was told to whiten her skin to perform in "Swan Lake" and couldn't wear a white veil because of her skin color.
  • The Staatsballett said in a statement that it would be restructuring and working "to uncover outdated and discriminatory ways."

The first Black ballerina at Stattsballett Berlin is speaking out about racist treatment she says she has received since joining the prestigious German company in 2018.

Speaking to Insider, Chloé Lopes Gomes said she faced racist discrimination from a ballet instructor, who she claims told her to whiten her skin to perform in "Swan Lake."

Lopes Gomes said that after reporting the racist behavior she learned in October that her contract with the ballet company would not be renewed when it ends in July 2021.

Advertisement

Now, the ballerina is fighting for reform in the company and industry, and has hired a legal team to take action, The Times reports. Lopes Gomes' allegations have also gained widespread media attention, and she has received support from high-profile dancers including Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theater's principal dancer.

Chloé Lopes Gomes says a ballet instructor at the Staatsballett Berlin discriminated against her at an audition

A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company
Lopes Gomes joined the Staatsballett in 2018.@chloe.desnoyers

Lopes Gomes joined the Staatsballett in 2018, becoming the company's first Black female dancer.

She says the racism she faced at the company began at an audition, where she said a colleague told her about a racist remark a ballet instructor made.

Advertisement

"There was this French girl, she's Black, she's very good but I don't think we should hire her because a Black girl in the corps de ballet [the non-principal dancers in a performance] is not very aesthetic," the ballet mistress - who Lopes Gomes did not name for legal reasons - purportedly said.

"She discriminated against me because of my skin color," Lopes Gomes told Insider.

The same ballet instructor told her she couldn't wear a white veil because she is Black, Lopes Gomes said

A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company
Lopes Gomes is the Staatsballett's first Black female dancer.@pickledthoughtz

When Lopes Gomes got the job, she was dismayed to learn she would be under the instruction of that same ballet mistress who she said had made the racist remarks about hiring a Black dancer at her audition.

Advertisement

Lopes Gomes said the verbal abuse continued.

"She kept devaluing my work, giving me so much correction," the ballerina said.

She recalls a particular incident during preparations for a performance of "La Bayadère," when she said the ballet mistress initially wouldn't give her a white veil like those given to the other dancers.

Advertisement

"She said, 'I won't give it to you because this veil is white and you are Black,' and she started to laugh in my face, in front of my colleagues," Lopes Gomes said. "In the end, she gave it to me but she made a very racist joke - I was so shocked, and we were even more surprised that she wasn't scared she'd be sanctioned."

The Guardian corroborated Lopes Gomes' claim after speaking to a dancer who was present when the comment about the veil was made. The ballet instructor in question is a civil servant with a lifetime contract, which means she cannot be fired, according to German state law.

Lopes Gomes said the instructor told her to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake'

A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company
Lopes Gomes previously danced for the Bolshoi Ballet.@chloe.desnoyers

When she began working with the Staatsballett, Lopes Gomes said she was told that she wouldn't have to whiten her skin for a performance - a problematic practice that is not uncommon for classical ballets like "Swan Lake."

Advertisement

"When I joined the company, under then co-artistic director, Johannes Öhman, I was told I didn't have to do it. He was very against that," she said. "For him, it was very awkward and racist, and he told me not to do it."

According to Lopes Gomes, after Öhman left the company in January, the ballet mistress told her she would have to whiten her skin. However, Lopes Gomes said that when Öhman's replacement Christiane Theobald, the company's current co-artistic director, saw the dancer rehearsing for "Swan Lake" in white makeup, she was "so shocked," and confirmed she shouldn't wear white makeup.

In recent years, the act of dancers whitening their skin for classical ballets has been criticized as it discriminates against people of color. Theresa Ruth Howard wrote about the problematic practice in a 2017 article for Dance Magazine.

Advertisement

"There has been much ado about the concept of 'breaking the line' of the corps de ballet with brown bodies, which are argued to distract from the uniformity of the corps in works like Swan Lake and Giselle," she wrote. "Often, for such ballets, white dancers are asked to "whiten" themselves even further. Hence, the browner the body, the bigger the break. It stands to reason that light-brown ballerinas would be aesthetically preferable."

The ballerina says she feels 'very humiliated and very alone'

A Black ballerina says she was told to whiten her skin for 'Swan Lake' at a major German dance company
Lopes Gomes' contract at the prestigious Berlin ballet company expires at the end of July 2021.@pickledthoughtz

According to Lopes Gomes, she was told her contract was being terminated on October 1, after she had reported allegations of racist abuse to senior members of the company. The first time was to Öhman in 2018, but she said she asked him not to do anything because she didn't want to rock the boat.

It was then in September 2020 that Lopes Gomes claims she raised her issues with Theobald -"it was obvious she needed to do something," the ballerina said - and her contract was terminated in October.

Advertisement

"Knowing that I've been experiencing racism, the current director decided to fire me," Lopes Gomes said. "The official reason was that I don't keep the line in the corps de ballet, I'm not musical, and I'm not a good dancer."

Lopes Gomes said she was surprised by this because, when working with Öhman, she said she'd had nothing but praise for her work.

She is still dancing with the Staatsballett until her contract ends next July, but says being at work is "very hard" for her.

Advertisement

"It's very awkward at work, the atmosphere is horrible," she said, adding that she feels "very humiliated and very alone."

"The Staatsballett says it supports me but it hasn't, they haven't done anything. They haven't punished this ballet mistress. I feel very lonely," she said. "It's 2020, we shouldn't have to fight for our human rights. They are sending the message that a Black girl doesn't have a place in the ballet. I don't want to live in such a world."

The Staatsballett says it is 'restructuring' to 'create a safe workspace'

The Staatsballett has released a statement saying that it has been "in a state of transition" since Öhman left the company, and would now be taking the "opportunity to restructure the company and move forward to create a safe workspace for everyone."

Advertisement

The statement posted on the company website continues: "It is our priority to foster a working climate in which every single employee is encouraged to speak out as soon as transgressions of any kind occur. As a state institution, we cannot be part of the problem; we must lead as an example."

The Staatsballett also said it would be working "to uncover outdated and discriminatory ways of performing as well as question and re-evaluate our longstanding traditions."

It continued: "We are aware that the ballet profession has marginalized people of color throughout history. However, it is our artistic duty to be a mirror to our society, and our repertory must be an artistic beacon that reflects it in all its diversity."

Advertisement

A spokesperson for the Staatsballett Berlin declined to comment further when reached by Insider.

Read more:

50 non-white fitness, health, and wellness influencers to follow to diversify your Instagram feed

Advertisement

Dev Patel said he isn't interested in playing James Bond because he doesn't want to be a 'tokenistic' diversity hire

16 anti-racism books for young children

{{}}