‘I never set out to be an activist’: Meet Chloé Lopes Gomes, the Black ballerina tackling racism in the ballet world
On her eighth birthday Chloé Lopes Gomes’ mother took her to see Swan Lake. “It sounds like a cliché, but I was so impressed with the dancers - the bodies, the technique. It felt like a fairytale,” she tells Yahoo UK. “Something happened inside of me and at that moment I knew I was going to be a ballerina.”
Within a month of her first ever ballet lesson, having been told she was a natural by her teacher, she had joined the Conservetoire de Nice and was well on her way to realising her childhood dream.
Stints at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Danse de Marseille and at the Ballet de l’Opéra de Nice swiftly followed before, at just 14, the talented dancer was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia.
But despite her impressive achievements in the ballet world, like most fairytales, her happy ever after wasn't entirely smooth sailing.
After becoming the first Black female dancer at Berlin’s principal ballet company, the Staatsballett, she went on to report recurrent racial abuse from her ballet master, claiming she was repeatedly told she did not fit in because of her skin colour.
Having made the difficult decision to speak up about her treatment, Lopes Gomes was eventually awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement.
She hopes that by sharing her story she can help contribute to reforming the ballet industry and kick-start the conversation about inclusivity in the arts.
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Lopes Gomes says she felt “proud” when she was first offered a place at the prestigious Staatsballett in 2018, having auditioned against the “crème de la crème” of the ballet world for the honour.
She had not realised she was the company’s first Black female dancer until she was interviewed by some local journalists, who pointed it out. “To me it didn’t matter, I was just proud to have been successful,” she explains. “But in Berlin it was seen as quite a big deal.”
Lopes Gomes says the treatment she faced at the company began at her audition, after a friend told her about a remark one of the ballet masters had made. “She said that even if I was a good dancer the Staatsballett should not hire me because I am Black and that would not be homogenous in terms of the aesthetic,” she says.
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At the time, Lopes Gomes was waiting to find out if she had been awarded a contract, so she was surprised to later learn she had been successful. “I just thought I don’t care what she thinks about my skin colour, she can think this way but I’m going to prove I’m good enough,” she says.
But Lopes Gomes found herself under the instruction of the same ballet master, who she says seemed to have an issue with her from day one.
“She was very picky with me in terms of correction,” she recalls. “I just thought she was picking on me because I was new and that after a few months it would be ok.”
However, the treatment intensified with the dancer being subjected to “racist and derogatory” remarks, which left her feeling “shocked and humiliated”.
“When you’re not in line with the other girls we can only see you because you’re Black,” was one racist comment once thrown her way. Lopes Gomes recalls further incidents including being asked to whiten her skin with powder before a performance of Swan Lake to “blend in”.
On another occasion the dancer says she was refused a white veil having been told, laughingly: “I’m not going to give you this veil because it is white and you’re Black.”
This proved to be something of a final straw for Lopes Gomes. “She was allowing herself to bully me and make racist comments and she wasn’t fearing any consequences,” she explains. “I felt shocked and confused. I’m not one to complain but that time I left the rehearsal.”
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Lopes Gomes approached the company’s then artistic director who told her she should not accept such behaviour towards her, but pointed out there was little he could do as the ballet master was protected by a lifetime contract, which effectively meant she could never be fired.
He did, however, offer to talk to her about the treatment, something Lopes Gomes refused.
“It would have made it worse for me because she may have stopped the comments, but she might have punished me in terms of casting,” she explains of her decision.
When the artistic director unexpectedly announced in January 2020 that he would be leaving the company Lopes Gomes says the treatment towards her worsened: “It was horrible,” she adds.
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She brought it to the attention of the new artistic director who described it as “unacceptable” and offered to take action, warn the ballet master responsible and set up a workshop about diversity.
But after six months nothing had happened and in between, during the coronavirus pandemic, Lopes Gomes was told her contract was not being renewed. Though “artistic reasons” were cited, Lopes Gomes believes she was dismissed because of her complaints.
After trying to handle the issue internally, Lopes Gomes decided to go public about her experiences, but the decision to do so wasn’t taken lightly.
“I had a lot to lose,” she says. “To fight against such an esteemed company could ruin your career. Up until then I had stayed very quiet, but at that point I decided ok if I have to fight I’m going to fight, because this I’m not going to accept,” she adds.
“I didn’t speak German, I didn’t know the law, and I didn’t have the financial resources to take legal action, but for the first time I became really angry.”
Having contacted the media about her story, she received a wealth of support on social media, including from Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, as well as other well known dancers and the organisation Blacks in Ballet.
In April 2021, in an out of court settlement, Lopes Gomes had her contract renewed and received €16,000 (approx £14,000) in compensation. The fee, she claims, didn’t even cover her legal fees.
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But for her, it was more about the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and the hope it might break the industry's culture of silence.
“It was a small victory but a huge step for the ballet world,” Lopes Gomes wrote on Instagram after the result.
“After eight months of fighting we finally found a compromise even if it’s sad to have gone through all of this. I realised that even if I feared the consequences, speaking out was the best thing to do. I encourage everyone to break the silence.”
In a statement issued at the time the Staatsballett’s interim artistic director said: "The racist and discriminatory behaviour 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 changes."
While she says she didn’t set out to be an activist, Lopes Gomes is accepting of the role she has fallen into.
“People see me as a racial activist, but I’m so not, I just fought against the injustice I experienced in the ballet world,” she explains. “For me it was just a statement against mistreatment and racism was a part of it."
The experience took its toll on her mental health, and the dancer was hospitalised with depression while she was still at the company.
But now she's looking to the future, and, as she embraces a new career as a ballet coach and teacher, she is hoping her actions might help to bring about a much-needed change.
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Because while some strides have been made in terms of inclusivity within the industry - for example with the introduction of ballet shoes to match black and Asian skin in 2018 - Lopes Gomes believes more needs to be done.
“I’ve always been the only dancer to purchase my own make-up because the foundation provided by the company was for white skin,” she explains.
“I was also always told to do my own hair because our hair stylist didn’t know how to deal with my texture and didn’t have the products.
“Those might sound like small details but they make you feel different and it reminds you as Black ballerina you have to work harder to fit in.”
Levelling the playing field in terms of making ballet more accessible to all is also important, she says, and could inspire a cycle of inclusivity.
“If the ballet world welcomes more people from all ethnic and social backgrounds, to attend its shows, eventually more young people will fall in love with this art," she explains.
“And if the ballet school directors make it their duty to seek out and nurture aspiring dancers of all backgrounds then maybe later on they will become professional. And as the cycle continues more children will see themselves represented on stage and see a future in pointe shoes.
“It’s just logic,” she concludes.