Black Ballerina, Playing a Swan, Says She Was Told to Color Her Skin

Chloé Lopes Gomes had completed her hair and make-up and stuck the feathered swan headdress in place earlier than the rehearsal in February. Then, she later recounted, she repeatedly dipped a moist sponge into a pot of white pancake make-up, making use of it rigorously to her face, neck and higher physique.

Ms. Lopes Gomes, who’s French, is the one Black feminine dancer on the Staatsballett Berlin, and simply a few days earlier, she stated in an interview, one of many firm’s ballet mistresses had informed her to use the white make-up to coloration her pores and skin for “Swan Lake.”

“I felt humiliated,” Ms. Lopes Gomes stated in an interview. “But what could I say?

Until fairly recently, it has been common practice in ballet companies for the female dancers in ballets like “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” and “La Bayadère” to apply a whitening make-up so as to seem like beings from one other world, be they swans, sylphides, spirits or Shades. Since most ballet corporations — till comparatively not too long ago — included few Black dancers of their ranks, little thought was given to this; it was merely a part of the creation of a uniform aesthetic impact.

But as corporations have develop into each extra various and extra delicate to racial points, most have stopped the observe, or left it up to particular person dancers. The Dutch National Ballet, American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet disbursed with the observe greater than a decade in the past.

But Ms. Lopes Gomes, 29, stated that when she joined the Staatsballett Berlin in 2018, she was informed by the ballet mistress accountable for the feminine corps de ballet to use the physique make-up. “I said to her, I’ll never look white,” Ms. Lopes Gomes recounted. “She said, well, you will have to put on more than the other girls.”

Ms. Lopes Gomes reported the incident to Johannes Ohman, at the moment the co-artistic director, who issued a strict directive that she was not to use the make-up. But after he left the company in January, Ms. Lopes Gomes stated she was informed to use it once more.

This is one among many racially insensitive incidents that Ms. Lopes Gomes stated she skilled throughout her two years on the Staatsballett Berlin. She stated she had been too afraid of shedding her job to converse out earlier, however has determined to now after being informed in September that she was one among 12 dancers whose contracts aren’t being renewed on the finish of this season.

“I really hesitated about this because the ballet world is so small, and I’m scared I will never get another job,” stated Ms. Lopes Gomes. “But I want things to change; there are so few Black ballet dancers, and I don’t want small Black girls to think, ballet isn’t for me.”

Christiane Theobald, the ballet’s inventive director, stated in an interview that whereas she believes Ms. Lopes Gomes, she has been unable to corroborate her account. (Ms. Lopes Gomes stated that Ms. Theobald, the deputy inventive director on the time, noticed her sporting the whitening make-up after the February rehearsal and requested her why she was utilizing it; Ms. Theobald stated she has no reminiscence of this encounter.)

But a number of individuals affiliated with the corporate verify they both noticed Ms. Lopes Gomes with the make-up utilized, or that she informed them on the time concerning the ballet mistress’s directive. All requested to stay nameless, saying they have been afraid they’d lose their jobs in the event that they commented publicly.

The observe of feminine dancers powdering or portray their our bodies to look whiter in all probability dates from the mid-Nineteenth century, when romantic ballets like “Giselle” or “La Sylphide” popularized ethereal creatures who have been variously ghosts, spirits or enchanted beings — like girls who have been become swans.

Behind the thought is one other one which has lengthy been elementary to classical dance; the thought of aesthetic and stylistic uniformity. The feminine ensemble in lots of ballets is a multiplied picture of the ballerina — the Swan Princess and the swans, Giselle and the Wilis — and the thought of conformity to a particular bodily supreme is ingrained within the artwork type.

Female ballet dancers, particularly, are topic to strict bodily necessities concerning top and weight. Individuality is subjugated in a corps de ballet; its very title, “the body of the ballet,” suggests the best way by which classical dance typically presents dancers as a massed presence by which no single particular person stands out within the group.

For those that imagine on this historic supreme, the act of making use of whitening physique make-up is just a part of an general aesthetic and theatrical impact, as a lot a part of the costume because the tutu.

Benjamin Millepied, who stopped the observe of utilizing both whitening paint or blackface during his tenure as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, stated that defenders of those traditions all the time stated that the dancer was merely taking part in a character. But it was not a legitimate argument in a context by which one race had oppressed one other, he stated.

“This armylike idea of everyone in unison, everyone looking identical, is a major problem with ballet,” he stated. “It is an incorrect view; what makes the scenes work in ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘La Bayadère’ is great dancing, a sum of everyone’s energy and individuality, not a display of pancaked white people.”

The Paris Opera is ready for the outcomes of an exterior inquiry into racial variety, commissioned by its new director, Alexander Neef, earlier than setting a agency coverage. But Aurélie Dupont, the present director of the Paris Opera Ballet, has informed dancers not to use whitening make-up within the firm’s upcoming manufacturing of “La Bayadère.”

Both Ted Brandsen, the director of Dutch National, and Kevin O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, stated they felt it was extra necessary for his or her dancers to really feel accepted than to adhere to a conventional concept of uniformity. “It’s really important to recognize that we’re in the 21st century,” Mr. Brandsen stated, “and that ballet is an art form performed and enjoyed by people from many cultural backgrounds.”

It continues to be troublesome to be a Black ballerina, stated a number of dancers of coloration who have been interviewed for this text. Most stated they typically felt they’d to work tougher than their white friends to show their capabilities, or to change stereotyped concepts about what they might dance. But none had been requested to use physique make-up, and every dancer praised her firm’s present efforts to be extra acutely aware of the problems round variety and inclusiveness. (Several dancers talked about that their corporations now inspired them to use tights and pointe footwear that matched their pores and skin tones, somewhat than the usual pink.)

Ms. Lopes Gomes stated that, in her case, from the second she joined the corporate, she was picked on in rehearsals by one of many firm’s ballet mistresses. “She would say, when you’re not in line or not on the music, we see only you because you’re Black,” she stated. “It was upsetting.”

Several of Ms. Lopes Gomes’s colleagues stated they’d heard comparable remarks directed at her. Mr. Ohman, the previous co-artistic director, confirmed that Ms. Lopes Gomes had approached him in 2018 to report that a ballet mistress had informed her to apply white make-up earlier than performing. The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who staged his version of “La Bayadère” for the Staatsballett in 2018, stated that he had not witnessed any discriminatory conduct.

The firm stated the ballet mistress had declined a request for an interview.

Ms. Lopes Gomes stated that she believes her dismissal to be racially motivated. Ms. Theobald, who expressed her dismay and remorse at Ms. Lopes Gomes’s account throughout an interview, denied this, saying the contracts of the 12 dancers had not been renewed for “artistic reasons.”

But Ms. Theobald stated that, on the idea of Ms. Lopes Gomes’s account, the ballet mistress had been topic to “disciplinary measures.” For authorized causes, she stated, she was unable to specify what these are.

On Monday, the corporate issued a statement on its website that didn’t refer explicitly to Ms. Lopes Gomes’s assertions, however acknowledged that “the racist and discriminatory behavior that was brought to light in our company deeply moves us and shows that the necessary skills and tools to deal with issues of discrimination need to be worked on thoroughly to instigate profound change.”

Ms. Lopes Gomes stated that regardless of the unpleasantness of a few of her experiences in Berlin, she nonetheless hoped to discover a job with a large classical ballet firm.

“This has been my dream since I saw ‘Swan Lake’ when I was 8 years old,” she stated. “At that time, everyone onstage was white. I would like to think it doesn’t have to be like that any more.”

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