Chloé Lopes Gomes had done her hair and makeup and attached the feathered swan headdress before the February rehearsal. Then, she later said, she repeatedly dipped a damp sponge into a saucepan of white pancake makeup and carefully applied it to her face, neck and torso.
Ms. Lopes Gomes, a French woman, is the only black dancer at the Staatsballett Berlin, and just a few days earlier she had said in an interview that one of the company’s ballet masters had told her to use the white make-up to color her Skin for “Swan Lake”.
“I felt humiliated,” Ms. Lopes Gomes said in an interview. “But what could I say?
Until recently it was customary in ballet companies for dancers in ballets like “Swan Lake”, “Giselle” and “La Bayadère” to apply white make-up to look like creatures from another world, be it swans, Sylphide, ghosts or shadow. Since most ballet companies – until relatively recently – had only a few black dancers in their ranks, little thought was given to it; it was just part of creating a uniform aesthetic effect.
As companies have become both more diverse and more sensitive to racist issues, most have stopped the practice or left it to individual dancers. The Dutch National Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and Royal Ballet abandoned the practice more than a decade ago.
However, Ms. Lopes Gomes, 29, said when she came to the Staatsballett Berlin in 2018, she was instructed to use the body makeup by the ballet master, who is in charge of the female corps de ballet. “I told her I will never look white,” said Ms. Lopes Gomes. “She said, well, you’re going to have to dress more than the other girls.”
Ms. Lopes Gomes reported the incident to Johannes Ohman, then co-artistic director, who issued strict instructions not to use the makeup. But after he left the company in January, Ms. Lopes Gomes said to use it again.
This is one of the many race-insensitive incidents that Ms. Lopes Gomes experienced during her two years at the Berlin State Ballet. She said she was too scared of losing her job to comment earlier, but has now made up her mind after being told in September that she was one of 12 dancers whose contracts will not renew at the end of this season would.
“I was really hesitant because the ballet world is so small and I am afraid I will never get a job again,” said Ms. Lopes Gomes. “But I want things to change. There are so few black ballet dancers out there and I don’t want little black girls to think ballet is not for me. “
Christiane Theobald, the ballet’s artistic director, said in an interview that, although she believes Ms. Lopes Gomes, she could not confirm her report. (Ms. Lopes Gomes said Ms. Theobald, the then assistant artistic director, saw her wearing the whitening makeup after the February rehearsal and asked why she was using it; Ms. Theobald said she had no memory of that encounter.)
But several people associated with the company confirm that they either saw Ms. Lopes Gomes with the make-up or that she told them about the ballet master’s instruction at the time. Everyone asked to remain anonymous and said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke out publicly.
The practice of dancers powdering or painting their bodies to look whiter probably dates back to the mid-19th century when romantic ballets such as “Giselle” or “La Sylphide” popularized ethereal creatures that cast various spirits, spirits or bewitched Beings were – like women, they were turned into swans.
Behind the idea is another one that has long been fundamental to classical dance. the idea of aesthetic and stylistic uniformity. The female ensemble in many ballets is a multiplied image of the ballerina – the swan princess and the swans, Giselle and the Wilis – and the idea of conformity to a particular physical ideal is rooted in the art form.
Ballet dancers in particular are subject to strict physical requirements in terms of size and weight. Individuality is subjected to a corps de ballet; Its name, “the body of ballet,” suggests how classical dance often portrays dancers as a mass presence in which no single person in the group stands out.
For those who believe in this historical ideal, the application of white body makeup is simply part of an overall aesthetic and theatrical effect that is as much a part of the costume as the tutu.
Benjamin Millepied, who stopped using either white or black faced during his tenure as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, said defenders of these traditions always said the dancer was simply playing a character. But it’s not a valid argument in a context where one race has oppressed another, he said.
“That poor idea that everyone is in tune and everyone looks the same is a big problem with ballet,” he said. “It is a wrong view; What makes the scenes in ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘La Bayadère’ work is great dancing, a sum of energy and individuality of all, not a depiction of white pancakes. “
The Paris Opera awaits the results of an external study of racial diversity commissioned by its new director, Alexander Neef, before embarking on a firm policy. But Aurélie Dupont, the current director of the Paris Opera Ballet, has advised dancers not to use whitening makeup in the company’s upcoming production of “La Bayadère”.
Both Ted Brandsen, the director of Dutch National, and Kevin O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, said it was more important for their dancers to feel accepted than to cling to a traditional idea of unity. “It’s really important to realize that we are in the 21st century,” said Brandsen, “and that ballet is an art form that is performed and enjoyed by people from many cultural backgrounds.”
It’s still difficult to be a black ballerina, said several colored dancers interviewed for this article. Most said they often felt they had to work harder than their white counterparts to show off their skills or change stereotypes about what they could dance to. But no one had been asked to use body makeup, and each dancer praised her company’s current efforts to become more aware of the issues surrounding diversity and inclusivity. (Several dancers mentioned that their companies were now encouraging them to use pantyhose and pointe shoes that matched their skin tones, rather than the standard pink.)
Ms. Lopes Gomes said that in her case, from the moment she entered the company, she was selected by one of the company’s ballet masters at rehearsals. “She would say if you’re not in line or in the music we only see you because you are black,” she said. “It was annoying.”
Several of Mrs Lopes Gomes’ colleagues said they had heard similar remarks against her. Mr. Ohman, the former Co-Artistic Director, confirmed that Ms. Lopes Gomes reached out to him in 2018 to report a ballet master told her to put on white makeup before the performance. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who staged his version of “La Bayadère” for the State Ballet in 2018, said he had not observed any discriminatory behavior.
The company said the ballet master declined a request for an interview.
Ms. Lopes Gomes said she believed her dismissal was racially motivated. Ms. Theobald, who during an interview expressed her dismay and regret about Ms. Lopes Gomes’ report, denied this and said that the contracts of the 12 dancers had not been renewed for “artistic reasons”.
But Ms. Theobald said that the ballet mistress had been subjected to “disciplinary measures” on the basis of Ms. Lopes Gomes’ report. For legal reasons, she could not state exactly what it was.
On Monday, the company posted a statement on its website that made no explicit reference to the claims made by Ms. Lopes Gomes, but that “the racist and discriminatory behavior that has been exposed in our company is deeply moving and demonstrating to us that the necessary skills and abilities are in place Tools to deal with discrimination problems need to be carefully designed in order to bring about profound change. “
Ms. Lopes Gomes said that despite the inconvenience of some of her experiences in Berlin, she still hoped to find a job with a large classical ballet company.
“This has been my dream since I saw ‘Swan Lake’ when I was 8,” she said. “At that time everyone on the stage was white. I would like to think that it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. “