A lot has happened since last November, when French dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes went public with accusations of institutional racism against Staatsballett Berlin. After the company declined to renew her contract for next season, Lopes Gomes, Staatsballett's only Black dancer, said she had endured racial harassment from one of her ballet mistresses and that discrimination had played a role in her dismissal. In April, she reached a court settlement with the German company that included financial compensation and reinstatement of her contract through the end of the 2021–22 season.
In a press release, Staatsballett Berlin acting director Dr. Christiane Theobald said the company has zero tolerance for racism and discrimination. "There is great opportunity for change in the current situation," she continued. "It is a wake-up call." In December the company implemented a system for dancers to anonymously report discrimination to an external clearing house.
Lopes Gomes talked with Pointe about how she's been doing, what the court decision means to her, and how she envisions an arts world that is more transparent and inclusive for all.
How have you been feeling since the court decision was finalized?
Very tired. It's been eight months of fighting. After the decision came a few weeks ago, it really hit me how much energy the case took. I'm happy about the result, that my contract has been extended for another season, and for the financial settlement, but it was such an emotionally draining experience. My mind and body are exhausted.
The legal process wound up being a huge financial burden. From the €16,000 (roughly $19,500) settlement, I have to pay €6,000 in lawyer fees. But even though I'm not left with a fortune, I still see the settlement as a victory.
What has the experience been like at work since you came forward? Has it been awkward, or do you feel supported?
In the beginning I just didn't want to be at the theater. We were in a phase of the lockdown where class was optional, so I didn't set foot in the studio for two months. It was just too stressful. Eventually I decided that I couldn't let this affect my career, and that I had to start training again. Going back to work was really awkward at first, but it's gotten better. Overall, the company has been pretty divided. There are people who support me, and people who don't.
Our acting director Dr. Christiane Theobald has been very understanding. In a recent meeting, she admitted that we had been through a lot over the last months, but that she thought I was very brave and had set a good example.
Going to work now feels like a clean slate. And, so far, I haven't been scheduled in any rehearsals with that ballet mistress. It's still difficult to pass each other in the hallway, though.
Dean Barucija, Courtesy Lopes Gomes
What feedback have you received from other dancers around the world?
Dancers have reached out from all over, including London, New York and Paris, to tell me that they admire what I'm doing. I've realized that my case isn't just about calling out racism; it's about confronting all forms of injustice in the dance world. There are examples of injustice in so many companies, where dancers remain silent because they don't want to lose their jobs. But that is starting to change. If you don't go beyond your fear, nothing will ever change.
It's also been really great to receive messages from dancers of color, and to feel like we're calling out stereotypes—that our bodies, feet and work ethics aren't suited for ballet. I think it's important that we stick together. We're proving the old generation wrong, and fighting to get rid of discrimination. I'm really happy that I could help initiate this conversation.
What do you hope the momentum means for the future of classical ballet?
I believe that ballet should be accessible to everyone. If you want diversity in ballet companies, you need to diversify dance schools first. I think that school directors have a responsibility to offer everyone the same chances by looking for future talent in minority communities. For that to happen, the costs of a ballet dancer's training have to go way down. We have to democratize the art form, and that means getting rid of the financial obstacle.
This isn't just a problem in classical ballet, but of the arts in general. Society is evolving, and it's time for the arts world to catch up. There's so much to be done to achieve real diversity. I'm still very critical of the European convention of lifetime contracts, for example. They make people in powerful positions untouchable.
Where are you hoping to go from here in your career?
I'm eager to move on from this: to take care of myself, and to find another job after next season. I don't see myself joining a completely classical company; I'd rather move in the neoclassical direction. Right now, I'm very excited because David Dawson is creating a piece for Staatsballett, and I'm called to rehearsal. He is my favorite choreographer!
I also hope to be able to create a scholarship someday to help dancers from poorer backgrounds finance their dance training. Culture should be something for everyone. That's the idea that drives me.