Ballerina Chloé Lopes Gomes alleged racism at her company. Now she says it’s time for change
Chloe Lopes Gomes was the first Black Ballet dancer to join the Berlin Staatsballet. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
In 2018 I became the first black ballet dancer to join Staatsbellet, Berlin’s premier ballet company. It was my dream to join such a ballet institution – it is one of the best in the world.
I have suffered with depression and humiliation – and I am far from the only dancer who has experienced abusive comments and verbal abuse during my career. Such behavior is institutionalized within ballet, from the time we are children and begin our training. We do not talk about it because we are not taught.
Chloe Lopes Gomes became the first black dancer in the prestigious Staatsballet in Berlin in 2018. Credit: Chloe Desnoyers
We start ballet at a very young age, often when we are just seven or eight years old. Teachers instill discipline and rigor in us, but they also teach us not to complain – be in silence and be “polite”. Many young dancers are trained to believe that, to become ballerina, pain is part of the process. Ballet masters should treat dancers respectfully and with kindness.
The silence prevails, because we often do not have enough support or protection. The power that institutions give to ballet masters is undeniable – at the end of the day, they are the ones who are with us in the studio and they are the ones who give us the opportunity to improve within the company. We have only one or two year renewable contracts. And the ballet world is very small. Speaking against a respected company can ruin a career.
My experience with casteism is not isolated. I have heard of damaging stereotypes that black dancers are not flexible enough or do not have right legs, or that Asian dancers are not expressive enough. The ballet is still designed for white dancers, under footwear and makeup. Nude-colored ballet shoes for black dancers did not exist until 2018. I always have to buy my makeup, because the foundation provided has always been for fair skin. I have always been the only dancer to do my hair, because hairstylists don’t know how to work with my texture. At Staatsballett, there are 95 dancers and I was the only one spending my money on makeup. It makes you feel excluded. And it reminds me that when you are black, you have to work hard for the same opportunities.
Gomes writes, “I always have to buy my makeup, because the foundation that is given is always for fair skin.” Credit: Dean baruiza
The ballet world needs to change, and we have a chance to do so now, while the art form has been put in jeopardy during the coronovirus epidemic. For the performing arts to survive, they have to reach new audiences. In ballet, which is still predominantly white and aristocratic, we have to make it more accessible, and we can make it as a more inclusive and equitable art.
We should attract talented and diverse young dancers to ballet schools and start a remake of ballet companies from the ground up to reflect the multicultural world we live in. We should end the dangerous belief that dancers should always be silent, which is drunk. At an early age. And we should give the dancers the proper path of repetition when their teacher or director abuses their power.
Classical arts in general have long excluded ethnic minorities because they are prohibitively expensive for the under-privileged. Attending theater is expensive – and training in the arts is even more expensive. Going to the cinema or playing sports is very cheap. I was raised in France with a very modest upbringing. My mother is a cleaning lady, and my father is a construction worker. When I attended the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia, I did not take loans for the footsteps of my two siblings, who are also dancers. I had to succeed; There was a lot of pressure to get me out.
“I have a different vision for the future of the platform,” Gomes writes. “Variety is not harmful to Ballet’s scenes.” Credit: Dean baruiza
I believe that we have to democratize the ballet to ensure our future. If ballet companies welcome more people from all backgrounds to participate in their shows, more young people will fall in love with it. If the directors of the ballet school want to make it their duty and nurture those aspiring dancers, and level the playing field regardless of race or income level, then diverse dancers will enter the ranks. They would eventually become ballet masters to attract and educate more dancers of color. And then the cycle continues – more kids will see themselves represented on stage; They will see the future in future shoes.
The ballet rewards uniformity within its dancers. We have to transform into swans or spirits, which will become part of more and more movement and form. But I have a different vision for the future of the platform. It is so beautiful to see a white girl next to a black girl or a brown girl next to an Asian girl, after all the same choreography. Variety is not harmful to ballet scenes – it may be its greatest strength instead.