Germany’s most prestigious ballet company has promised to reform after its first and only black dancer said she had been subjected to racist discrimination and asked to whiten her skin for a role.
Chloé Lopes Gomes, a French ballerina with family roots in Algeria and Cape Verde, claims an instructor at the Berlin state ballet ordered her to apply whitening powder for a performance of Swan Lake and told her she had been hired only because she was black.
She also alleges that she was mocked by a ballet mistress for the contrast between her white veil and dark skin during rehearsals for La Bayadère, a 19th-century ballet by the Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus.
She has engaged a lawyer in a battle to keep her job. Her contract is due to expire next summer. Another member of staff at the ballet company has been accused of making “strange noises” in front of Asian dancers, in an apparent pastiche of a foreign language, and of likening a Mexican ballerina to Pocahontas.
Yesterday the company issued a statement that stopped short of an apology but announced an investigation to root out “outdated and discriminatory styles of performance”.
More than a million people of African descent live in Germany but the country has struggled to come to terms with its colonial history and contemporary complaints of institutional racism against black people.
The groundswell of frustration that accompanied the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the UK has yet to gather the same momentum, and public controversies like the dispute around Lopes Gomes are still relatively rare. One of the national state broadcasters was widely derided over the summer for staging a discussion about Black Lives Matter with a panel composed entirely of white German men.
Lopes Gomes, 29, joined the Berlin state ballet in 2018. The company has long boasted on its website of its ethnic diversity, with 91 dancers from 30 countries. Yet Lopes Gomes says she was singled out soon after joining for bullying and unrelenting criticism by an unnamed ballet mistress, who has declined to respond to the allegations.
“I thought if I trained more, if I got better, she would at some point acknowledge that I deserved this position,” Lopes Gomes told Der Spiegel, a German news magazine.
She also ran foul of entrenched European ballet traditions: for Swan Lake, companies often apply white make-up to the ballerinas in their ensembles when they dance as the swans but Lopes Gomes objected that she could never be “as white as the other dancers”.
Der Spiegel commented: “In the case of a non-white ballerina, the practice seems like the post-colonial equivalent of racist blackface.”
Lopes Gomes said she had taken her complaint to Johannes Ohman, the company’s artistic director at the time, but he had done little more than propose a meeting with the ballet mistress in question. Mr. Ohman, who is now based at the Dansens Hus ballet theatre in Stockholm, said he had told all the instructors afterward that there would be no tolerance of racism.
Yesterday the Berlin state ballet conceded it was “not immune” to the structural racism that it said was widespread in German society. “The episodes of racism and discrimination in our house that have come to light in recent days have deeply affected many of us and shown that we have hard work to do in order to deal properly with discrimination of every form and ultimately to set far-reaching changes in motion,” it said.