Berlin State Ballet settles with dancer over racism allegations | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.04.2021

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Berlin State Ballet settles with dancer over racism allegations

Ballerina Chloe Lopes Gomes will stay with the Berlin State Ballet. A settlement has been reached after the dancer accused Berlin's principal ballet company of racism.

Watch video 03:08

Dancer speaks out about racism at Berlin’s Staatsballet

Since December 2020, all state ballet employees have been able to anonymously get in touch with an external contact to report their own experiences and perceptions on the topic of discrimination.

Chloe Lopes Gomes filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the expiration of her temporary contract. She felt discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Now the State Ballet and the dancer have agreed to a court settlement: The ballerina will stay with the State Ballet for another year and receive a compensation payment of €16,000 ($19,240).

The ballet company had originally justified the non-renewal of the ensemble dancer's contract on artistic grounds. Whether these were linked to racist motives would have had to be proven in court.

A wake-up call

"I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement today and thus end the legal dispute," said Christiane Theobald, the company's acting artistic director. "I regret the experiences of discrimination described by Chloe Lopes Gomes, which we take very seriously and are thoroughly dealing with."

"In the current situation there is also a great opportunity for change, it's a wake-up call," she added.

Worldwide, the case of the dancer had caused quite a stir. Chloe Lopes Gomes had complained publicly that she had repeatedly heard racist comments from her ballet mistress.

"During those two and a half years, I was under the supervision of a ballet mistress who said that ballet should not take me because I am Black and a woman of color in a 'corps de ballet' is something that is not aesthetic, not homogeneous," Lopes Gomes told DW in December 2020. "She made racist jokes and comments." 

The French dancer has been working at the Berlin State Ballet since 2018 — as the first and to date only Black member.

The ballet mistress is said to have repeatedly racially discriminated against her, for instance, by demanding that Lopes Gomes apply white makeup for Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake.

It's an explosive topic since whitefacing, or making Black people appear white using make-up, violated the ballet's house policy under former artistic director Johannes Öhman, as other people of color also dance in the company. After Öhman left the Berlin State Ballet in December 2019, however, the ballet mistress reportedly demanded that Lopes Gomes do just that.

"I felt very humiliated, but above all, I was very surprised that she felt no fear of being punished," recalls the 29-year-old Frenchwoman.

Lopes Gomes had informed Öhman of the situation before he left, and she says that even though he was shocked by her statements, he also pointed out that the State Ballet's masters are protected by life contracts and that little could be done. On the other hand, dancers only have a one year renewable contract: "At the time, I was very worried that if he spoke to the ballet mistress about it, my case would get even worse," says the dancer, who only went public with the accusations against the Berlin ballet mistress when it was clear that her contract would not be renewed. It expires next year.

Many dancers of the Berlin State Ballet dancing La Bayadère and appearing as brides

The Berlin State Ballet dancing 'La Bayadere' with the utmost precision and harmony

'Any form of discrimination not acceptable'

The current artistic directorate of the Berlin State Ballet did not want to comment on the case when questioned by DW. In a statement on the claims of racism, the State Ballet said: "All forms of discrimination and racism are unacceptable in our company." It was thought that its international diversity — after all, the company works with 91 dancers from more than 30 countries — would "already sufficiently sensitize people to problems of racism and discrimination."

That apparently is not the case, which is why an investigation is currently underway to reveal discriminatory behavior within the ensemble. Since December 2020, all state ballet employees have been able to anonymously get in touch with an external contact to report their own experiences and perceptions on the topic of discrimination.

With a view to the future, there is "the opportunity to realign our company and look ahead, and to create a safe and appreciative atmosphere for all employees, from the corps de ballet to the first soloists to the production and administration team."

The investigation also involves the repertoire: "Outdated and discriminatory ways of performing" are to be exposed and "traditions are to be reviewed and re-evaluated with a different perspective and consciousness." The directorship is aware that "the ballet genre has marginalized people of color throughout its history."

Protest against blackfacing in customs

In the case of Lopes Gomes, whitefacing is problematic because it demands conformity to the white majority that was once the standard in classical ballet. The reverse, blackfacing, is also a practice in the performing arts, as well as a common practice in certain cultural customs — such as Carnival or Mardi Gras. However, it has long since become controversial. "Black people are reduced to their skin color and stereotypical features by way of wigs and ear or nose rings. But that's not what Black people look like," Tahir Della of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) told DW in a previous interview.

Actor Eddie Cantor wearing black face paint that exaggerates his eyes and mouth

Blackfacing involves dark face paint applied so that lips and eyes appear much bigger: Actor Eddie Cantor in the 1930 film 'Whoopee'

Blackfacing came into fashion in the 19th century with so-called minstrel shows in the US, which trivialized slavery. White actors portrayed Black slaves in a stereotypical manner, painting themselves in dark colors and drawing exaggeratedly thick lips.

Blackfacing also problematic in classical ballet

The piece La Bayadere, which belongs to the core repertoire of classical ballet, has also come under fire in the debate about blackfacing. The love drama of an Indian temple dancer premiered in 1877 at St. Petersburg's Mariinksy Theater.

Written for Russian audiences, it was intended to convey an image of India and its history through the plot location and characters, but not to represent Indian culture. While the music and choreography show Oriental influences, they still adhere to the usual adagios and waltzes and classical technique. Nevertheless, to make white dancers recognizable as Indian, they were occasionally painted dark. Some houses still adhere to this tradition today.

Ballet star Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first African-American prima ballerina at the American Ballet Theater, is taking a stand against this blackfacing. Under a picture shared on Instagram of dancers wearing dark makeup at Russia's Bolshoi Theater, she wrote the comment, "And this is the reality of the ballet world."

Post by Misty Copeland showing two dancers in blackface and bodies

This post by ballerina Misty Copeland drew a lot of attention last year

Dancers under pressure due to unstable working conditions

Copeland can afford to speak out — she doesn't have to worry about her career like her less famous fellow dancers do. Competition in ballet is fierce, so hardly anyone wants to attract negative attention.

Friedrich Pohl outside on front of bushes

Friedrich Pohl of Dancersconnect demands better working conditions for dancers

Friedrich Pohl, managing director of the dancers' network Dancersconnect, sees a recurring pattern in this: "Artists dance under contracts that are constantly limited. Artistic reasons are usually given for the non-renewal of these contracts. This puts the dancers under extreme pressure and puts them in an extremely subordinate position. It is very common for people to first speak out once it is clear that their contracts won't be renewed." Pohl therefore demands that managers become more aware of this. In addition, fixed-term contracts that are repeatedly renewed should be questioned and prevented to ensure better protection of artists, he said.

#BlackDancersMatter: Manifesto against racism in ballet

Regardless of whether the claims in Berlin actually happened that way, Lopes Gomes' accusations of racism are being heard in the ballet world. The Berlin State Ballet is now revising its program.

And the incidents have also been noticed outside of Germany. Prima ballerina Misty Copeland, for example, shared an article from the British newspaper The Guardian about Lopes Gomes' accusations on Twitter.

In Paris, too, people have spoken out against racist structures in this year marked by the Black Lives Matter movement. In the fall, five dancers from the Paris Opera published a manifesto against racism in ballet. Written by Guillaume Diop, Letizia Galloni, Jack Gasztowtt, Awa Joannais and Isaac Lopes Gomes, the document aims to "liberate racial discrimination from the silence that surrounds it in opera." The stigmas of racial discrimination, it states, are still present in 21st-century French society.

The manifesto —  signed by 400 of the nearly 2,000 employees of the Paris Opera — also calls for the "official and definitive abolition of blackfacing in ballets and operas."

One ballerina wearing white tights and pink shoes, another wearing black tights and shoes

Different-colored tights for different skin colors: One of the Paris dancers' demands

In addition, Black dancers should be given products such as tights that match their skin tone. According to the Paris Opera, accessories will soon be more nuanced in color, and there will also be an investigation in Paris into the issues raised in the manifesto regarding racism within the ballet company — the results are expected in December. It is currently unclear when the results of the investigation at the Staatsballett in Berlin will be available.
 

Update: This article, a translation from the German first published on December 11, 2020, was updated with the settlement details on April 22.  

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