Why are blacks generally better dancers?

Staatsballett Berlin: Unification in the racism dispute

Chloé Lopes Gomes filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the expiry of her fixed-term contract. She saw herself discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Now the state ballet and dancer agreed to a court settlement. After that, the ballerina will remain employed by the State Ballet for another year and will also receive compensation of 16,000 euros.

The State Ballet originally justified the non-renewal of the ensemble dancer for artistic reasons. Whether these were linked to racist motives should have been proven in court.

"I am glad that we were able to reach an agreement today and thus end the legal dispute," said Christiane Theobald, acting director of the State Ballet. "I regret the discrimination experiences described by Chloé Lopes Gomes, which we take very seriously and deal with in depth." And further: "In the current situation there is also a great opportunity for change, it is a wake-up call."

Review: The lawsuit of Chloé Lopes Gomes

The case of the dark-skinned dancer had caused a great stir internationally: Chloé Lopes Gomes had publicly complained that she had repeatedly had to listen to racist comments from the training manager. A black woman in the so-called corps de ballet is "not aesthetic" and the group is "therefore not homogeneous". The French dancer has been with the Berlin State Ballet since 2018 - as the first and to this day only black member.

"During these two and a half years I was under the supervision of a ballet master who said that ballet shouldn't take me because I'm black - and that a woman like me in a company is something unaesthetic and inhomogeneous," said Lopes Gomes in December 2020 towards the DW. "She made racist jokes and comments."

The ballet master is said to have repeatedly racially discriminated against her. She asked Lopes Gomes to put on white make-up for Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake".

A controversial topic, because whitefacing, i.e. the white make-up of black people, violated the house policy of the ballet under the former artistic director Johannes Öhman, in which other People of Color also danced. After Öhman left the Berlin State Ballet in December 2019, the ballet master asked Lopes Gomes to do just that. "I felt humiliated, but above all I was very surprised that she wasn't afraid of punishment," recalls the 29-year-old Frenchwoman.

Harmony in technical perfection: The Berlin Corps de Ballet in "La Bayadère"

Lopes Gomes had informed Öhman before his departure. Although the director was apparently shocked by her statements, he replied that state ballet masters were covered by lifelong contracts and that little could be done. Dancers, on the other hand, only have fixed-term contracts. "At the time, I was worried that it would get worse if he talked to her," the dancer told DW. Therefore, she did not go public with her case until she knew her contract would not be renewed.

"Any form of discrimination unsustainable"

At the time, the management of the Berlin State Ballet did not want to comment on the case when asked by DW. In a statement on the racism incidents it said: "Any form of discrimination and racism are not acceptable in our company." It was thought that international diversity - after all, they work with 91 dancers from more than 30 nations - was "already sufficiently sensitizing to problems of racism and discrimination".

That was probably not the case. Therefore, since December all employees of the State Ballet have been able to anonymously contact an external clearing house to report their own experiences and perceptions on the subject of discrimination.

In addition, with a view to the future, there appears the "possibility of realigning our company and looking ahead, also to create a protected and appreciative atmosphere for all employees, from the Corps de Ballet to the first soloists to the production and Management, to create. " The investigation also concerns the repertoire, "obsolete and discriminatory modes of performance" are to be exposed, "traditions are to be seen in a new light and with a different awareness" and reassessed. The management is aware that "the ballet genre marginalized people of color in the course of its history."

Protest against blackfacing in customs

In Lopes Gomes' case, whitefacing is problematic because it demands that it conform to the white majority - once the benchmark in classical ballet. The reverse type, blackfacing, is also a practice in the performing arts - and also controversial, for example at carnival. "Black people are reduced to their skin color and stereotypical features such as wigs and ear or nose rings. But that's not how black people look," said Tahir Della from the Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) of DW in an earlier interview.

Thick lips and wide eyes - this is how black people were portrayed in the 1930 film "Whoopee"

Blackfacing has its origins in the 19th century with the so-called minstrel shows in the USA, which played down slavery. White actors portrayed black slaves in a clichéd manner, for which they painted themselves dark and drew their lips with exaggerated fatness.

Blackfacing in classical ballet

The piece "La Bayadère", 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 the St. Petersburg Mariinksi Theater. Written for a Russian audience, it was supposed to convey a picture of India and its history through the setting and the characters, but not to represent Indian culture.

Music and choreography show oriental influences, but the usual adagios and waltzes stick to the classical technique. Nevertheless: In order to make white dancers recognizable as Indian, they were occasionally painted dark. Some houses still hold on to this tradition today.

Ballet star Misty Copeland, who became the first African American woman to become a prima ballerina at the American Ballet Theater in 2015, positions herself against this blackfacing. Under a picture shared on Instagram of dark make-up dancers from the Russian Bolshoi Theater, she wrote the comment: "And that is the reality of the ballet world."

This post by dancer Misty Copeland got a lot of attention last year

Dancers under pressure

Copeland can afford such criticism. She doesn't have to worry about her career like her less famous dance colleagues. The competition in ballet is great, so hardly anyone wants to attract attention.

Demands better working conditions for dancers: Friedrich Pohl from Dancersconnect

Friedrich Pohl, Managing Director of the Dancersconnect dancer network, sees a recurring pattern in this: "Artists dance on fixed-term contracts. Artistic reasons are sufficient for not extending these contracts. The dancers are therefore under pressure and are disproportionately inferior. It keeps coming back to the fact that people only express themselves in the course of a non-renewal. " Pohl therefore demands that the managers become aware of this. In addition, chain time limits should be questioned and made more difficult with far-reaching measures to protect artists.

#BlackDancersMatter: Manifesto against racism in ballet

Regardless of whether the incidents in Berlin actually happened that way - Lopes Gomes' accusations of racism were heard in the ballet world. And outside of Germany, too, people became aware of the incidents. So prima ballerina Misty Copeland shared an article in the British newspaper "The Guardian" about Lopes Gomes' allegations on Twitter.

In Paris, too, voices against racist structures were raised in the year marked by the #Black Lives Matter movement. In the fall of 2020, 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 "break racial discrimination out of the silence that surrounds it in opera."

The stigmata of racial discrimination are still present in French society in the 21st century. These did not stop at the opera either. The manifesto - it was signed by 400 of the almost 2000 employees of the Paris Opera - calls for the "official and final abolition of blackfacing in ballets and operas".

The right tights and shoes for every skin color - a requirement of the Paris Manifesto

Black dancers should also be given equipment and clothing, such as tights, that match their skin tone. According to the Paris Opera, the color of the accessories will soon be more nuanced, and here, too, an investigation should investigate the issues raised in the manifesto in connection with racism within the ballet company.

This is the updated version of an article dated December 11th, 2020.