Chloé Lopes Gomes

Dean Barucija, Courtesy Lopes Gomes

Chloé Lopes Gomes Speaks Out About Racial Harassment at Staatsballett Berlin

In November, the French dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes went public with accusations of institutional racism against Staatsballett Berlin, first reported by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the article, several anonymous dancers confirm her account. Lopes Gomes, 29, who trained in Marseille and at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, danced for the Ballet de l'Opéra de Nice and Béjart Ballet Lausanne before joining Staatsballett Berlin as a corps de ballet member in 2018, under then co-directors Johannes Öhman and Sasha Waltz. After the company told her in October that her contract, which ends in July, would not be renewed, she shared her story with Pointe.

I didn't know I was the first Black female dancer at Staatsballett Berlin when I joined the company in 2018. I learned that from German journalists who came to interview me almost immediately. I grew up in a mixed-race family—my mother was French, my father from Cape Verde—and I was educated to believe that we all have the same opportunities.

My brother and my sister also went to prestigious dance schools [her brother, Isaac Lopes Gomes, is now a dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet], and I didn't really think about my skin color while I was training. I spent four years at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. I didn't necessarily feel safe in the streets in Russia because people stared at me, but I was still awarded scholarships and my teacher loved me.

I quickly realized that auditions and company life were a different story. The day after my audition in Berlin, in early 2018, one particular ballet mistress told a colleague of mine in the company that she didn't think the Staatsballett should hire me because a Black woman in a corps de ballet isn't aesthetically pleasing. This ballet mistress was in charge of the corps, and for over two years, she discriminated against me because of my skin color.

That colleague warned me before I started, but I was hopeful I would also work with other ballet masters. No such luck: I was under her supervision 90 percent of the time, and we started with Swan Lake. I was one of six new women, and the ballet mistress immediately took a dislike to me. She bombarded me with corrections, and when the premiere arrived, she told me that all the women needed to color their skin with white powder. I told her that I would never look white, and she replied: "You'll just put on more powder than the others."

I spoke to Johannes [Öhman, co-artistic director at the time], who decided I should stay as I was. The ballet mistress took the fact that I went to him as an affront, as if I'd undermined her authority, and she started saying overtly racist things.

Since I didn't speak German and she didn't speak English, we communicated in Russian initially, so my colleagues didn't understand when she would say casually: "You're not in line and that's all we see because you're Black." And then, when she was handing out the Shades' veils for La Bayadère, she got to me and laughed, in front of other dancers: "I can't give you one: The veil is white and you're Black."

I again told Johannes, who said it was unacceptable but explained to me that she had a lifetime contract, which means you're untouchable in Germany. Johannes asked if I wanted him to talk to her, and I said no, because I was worried it would get even worse.

I was so anxious and unwell that I ended up with a metatarsal fracture. I should have been back after two months, but six months later, I was still in pain, and the doctors didn't know why—until a neurologist told me it was linked to stress and prescribed antidepressants. Suddenly, the pain went away completely.

Johannes left Staatsballett Berlin abruptly last January. On the day he announced it, the ballet mistress told me that now I was going to have to use white powder. I ran into the current interim director, Christiane Theobald, in a hallway while in makeup for Swan Lake. She asked why I had whitened my skin and said that I wasn't supposed to do it, but the ballet mistress was in charge of rehearsals and didn't leave me much choice. I felt like the company's ugly little duckling.

This ballet mistress also had me and a few colleagues re-create a painting of a Black dancer surrounded by white dancers. When I asked what the photo was for, she said she wanted to show her friends that they had "one of those" too in the company, as if I were a zoo animal.

My colleagues didn't want to take the picture, but there is an atmosphere of fear in the dance world. The ballet masters are the ones who are in the studio with us all the time, who hold the keys to our evolution. If you're on a one-year or two-year contract, it's very easy for the company not to renew it, whereas some ballet masters are employed for life. They're more privileged than even some directors, and that creates a power imbalance: We should be on an equal footing contract-wise.

The Staatsballett doesn't have a safe way to report discrimination or harassment, and there was still blackface in the repertoire when I joined. In Nutcracker, some children were required to paint their faces black, while I stood in the corps behind them.

Against a gray backdrop and wearing a gray leotard, Chlo\u00e9 Lopes Gomes lifts her left leg into a high grand battement \u00e0 la seconde on pointe.

Dean Barucija, Courtesy Lopes Gomes

I was called to a pre-dismissal meeting with Christiane Theobald in October. She did not dance professionally, so she said she relied on the ballet masters' advice. I was told that they needed to let some dancers go due to COVID, and that I would be happier in a smaller company, because I hadn't been onstage much. I explained why that was, and what had happened to me. She admitted it was terrible but said my race wasn't the reason they were firing me.

I know I was fired because I'm Black. From the beginning, I didn't stand a chance. Christiane Theobald is part of an old-fashioned system: She has worked for the company's administration since 2004, and she let me go even after I told her about the racism I encountered. My contract runs through July 31: I've been cast in reduced, COVID-friendly versions of Giselle and Swan Lake and I still want to work.

There is still this idea in the ballet world that you have to suffer to make it. We—the younger generation—can't accept that anymore. Ballet must reflect society. I don't want to be abused just to be able to dance. I want to be happy in my life, not just when I step onstage.

Editor's note: In a statement to Pointe, Theobald, who cannot comment on personnel matters, says that an internal investigation into Lopes Gomes' allegations is underway, and that the company plans to conduct antiracism training and workshops for all employees. "I am sorry to see that there is an employee at the Staatsballett Berlin who had to endure a very stressful situation for a long time and that the situation could not be resolved beforehand. Discrimination and racism is a highly sensitive issue that is of importance to society as a whole, including the Staatsballett Berlin. It is very important to me to live a discrimination-free corporate culture and to implement it where it does not yet exist 100 percent."

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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