Chloé Lopes Gomes was happy to be inducted into Staatsballett, one of Germany’s most prestigious ballet companies. She came from France, born to Black parentage and did not want her race to be the headline even if she was the first of her kind to be admitted.
But soon enough, Gomes believes her race began to matter. Her membership of the company was not renewed and the 29-year-old believed it had some thing to do with her complaints against one instructor who took pleasure in humiliating her over her Black skin.
This was the same ballet mistress who had told Gomes, “I can’t give you one. The veil is white and you’re black.” This was part of other racist comments and unfair treatment that she was forced to take from that ballet mistress. Staatsballett disagreed that the refusal to renew her membership had to do with her complaints. The company said it was for “artistic reasons”.
But in a piece for CNN Style in February, Gomes pointed out the ballet industry forces a culture of silence even though her “experience with racism is not isolated”.
“The silence is pervasive as well because we often don’t have enough support or protection. The power that institutions give to the 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,” Gomes wrote.
So Gomes took legal action, claiming that she was being ousted from Staatsballett because she would not keep quiet about her treatment. She pointed out that the institution wanted to get rid of the one person – one Black woman out of 95 ballerinas – who was stirring up trouble.
It seemed the court was going to agree with her because Staatsballett agreed to an out-of-court settlement. The will renew Gomes’ contract with the dance company for 2021 to 2022, apart from paying her $19,000 in compensation. But Staatsballett would like the world to know they did not take Gomes’ claims lightly.
“I regret the discrimination which Chloé Lopes Gomes described, which we take very seriously and are addressing comprehensively,” Christiane Theobald, head of Staatsballett told the BBC.
The Staatsballett Berlin was founded in 2004 as a result of the reunification of the former ballet ensembles of Berlin’s three opera houses. It has been at the heart of art life and culture for the last two decades and is highly esteemed in Europe.
But with Europe at a crossroads in the debate over identity and culture, Gomes notes that ballet companies “have to democratize ballet in order to ensure its future. If ballet companies welcome more people of all backgrounds to attend its shows, more young people will fall in love with it”.