What the Staatsballett Berlin Case Tells Us About the Power of Artistic Staff

December 15, 2020

As Staatsballett Berlin’s Chloé Lopes Gomes—the sole Black female dancer with the company—has shared the shameful and blatant discrimination she says she endured at the hands of an unnamed, tenured ballet mistress, it could be seen as the salvo announcing a second wave of the racial reckoning ballet experienced in the summer. After the pure rage and incredulity wanes (although are we really surprised?), if we take a moment to look deeper, we can learn a great deal about the current landscape of ballet relative to diversity, equity and inclusion today.

Whitening a Dancer’s Skin

What struck a particularly painful chord with dancers of color around the world is Gomes’ allegation of being asked to whiten her skin for Swan Lake. This practice of painting or powdering the skin white for classical full-length works is less a norm in the U.S., but still prevalent in European companies.

Though relatively antiquated, it is an aesthetic tradition, and thus normalized. Originally devised to give the female dancers an otherworldly appearance, and perhaps to create an added level of uniformity, this made perfect sense when all the dancers were white. When there are dancers of other races, and particularly of darker complexions, the once seemingly innocent practice suddenly doubles down on the otherness. Depending on the dancer’s complexion, it rarely aids in making her fit in. Rather it renders the dancer an awkward eyesore, gray and bizarre.

There is no worse feeling than having to go onstage knowing you look ridiculous, and because this whitening does not cover up the Blackness, it sets up the binary of white/good/correct vs Black/bad/wrong. It makes Blackness an unsolvable problem in ballet.

Though on the wane, this powdering and the use of period wigs are standard at European companies which have entire departments specializing in their construction and care. Seemingly harmless, heritage relics, these practices serve to remind Black and brown dancers that this was a form crafted in their absence, and companies are uninterested in adjusting for their presence. The same is true for exhaustive debates about blackface and yellowface, racialized makeup techniques and racially problematic ballets, like La Bayadère and Petrushka. These are aspects of the classical ballet aesthetic that represent the overt ways in which systematic racism results in the exclusion that’s present, telegraphing ballet’s commitment to whiteness.

A Point of Contradiction

We live in a time when being an “international” company refers to a roster more than their touring reach. Many take pride in their multiculturalism and yet have given little to no thought towards developing the cultural competence to honor this diversity represented in their dancers. There is an unspoken belief that the overarching shared culture is ballet itself, which has the power to bring order to the Towers of Babble of the studio. We all speak “ballet” and have been socialized by its culture, which places a person’s value on their body and performance. When thoroughly socialized, both who and what you are have been sufficiently muted as you are absorbed literally into the corps de ballet.

And when it comes to the dancing, that may be true. However, each dancer is living a full life outside of the studio, off of the stage, within the organization, and this is where being seen, heard and acknowledged as a full human would be helpful.

The culture says to dancers, “You should be grateful that you are allowed in.” Dancers are infantilized, like delicate crystal figurines in a menagerie. Although they are not fragile, they are the most vulnerable in the organizations, going to work with the clear understanding that they are replaceable.

The Silent Sentinel

The artistic director may sit at the pinnacle of the hierarchy in a ballet company, holding the responsibility of determining the overall aesthetic and repertory with the hiring of dancers and choreographers. However, it is the artistic staff members—like ballet masters—who act as the ultimate gatekeepers, charged with manifesting the vision, and maintaining the standard of the company. They have the most daily contact with the dancers, controlling their existences in the scheduling and management of classes and rehearsals.

The amount of power an artistic staff member has is predicated on their relationship with the director and their leadership style. With directors who are hands-on, in the studio and highly communicative, there is clarity about what they want and the way they want it. But under those directors who are less connected to the day-to-day machinations, members of the staff are left to intuit what is desired. In both cases, the staff lead through an amalgam of their personal tactics and methods, preferences and biases.

As the gate between dancer and director, under the guise that they come from above, artistic staff members can sometimes enact various forms of psychological abuse. For dancers who exercise agency, crossing or confronting a ballet master can result in retaliation like verbal belittling or intimidation, and being presented as a “problem” to the director, affecting casting and ultimately their career trajectory.

In this way, it is sadly common for artistic staff members to create unsafe work environments. They can act with impunity because they are highly trusted members of the court; they sit to the right and left of the sovereign, thus have both ears. Like Othello‘s Iago, they have the ability to twist words and situations, impose their personal preferences, both to the director and to guest choreographers. They wield an immense amount of power.

The more adroit they are, the higher their stature, the more leeway they are afforded. Bad behavior or complaints are ignored or covered up because their acumen is seen as more valuable than their offenses harmful. Why? Because ballet values the art over all. Since the culture is more concerned with the product than the process, artistic teams’ methods often go unchecked. This is what we see in the Staatsballett case, with the caveat that in some European systems these artistic positions are government jobs, a benefit of which is lifetime appointment. (However, it should be noted that the Staatsballett ballet mistress could have been reassigned to a nonartistic position.)

Under the guise of respecting boundaries, the culture of ballet has a blind-eye, closed-mouth, “It’s not my place” rule when it comes to abusive or improper behaviors. This supports toxicity within the culture and allows artistic staff and faculty members to become silent terrorists within an organization. Think Nurse Ratchet in dance sneakers.

Gomes’ alleged story illustrates this power dynamic with frightening clarity. Although she says she had the support of co-artistic director Johannes Öhman, she was at the daily mercy of the ballet mistress. Gomes has stated that although the interim artistic director Christine Theobald did not support the practice of whiting up, because the ballet mistress was in charge of rehearsals, it left her no choice. Often the influence the artistic staff hold in ballet companies positions them as potentially the single most intractable cultural impediments to diversification.

This is a ubiquitous reality in the field, both in companies and in schools. For some, there is pride in being immovable in the commitment to the classical tradition even when its white supremacist roots are laid out before them. They are good soldiers who, even when their director’s aperture has broadened, hold fast, committed to seeing the mission out to its end. They believe their self-righteousness and elitism only make them better at their jobs.

Although we are beginning to see some forward motion with the training pipelines diversifying, more dancers of color (specifically Black) onstage, more choreographers of color being engaged—we are even seeing the normalization of conversations about race in organizations—we will be running in place if ballet leadership does not hold itself accountable. Organizational values, mission statements, three- to five-year strategic plans, diversity training, book clubs, talking circles and social media posts mean precious little when you are content to bear witness and are inactive or silent.

If we are truly working towards the evolution of ballet, then the value system of “art above all” will have to change. We will have to put people first, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy against artistic and racial terrorism. It’s time for some of the old guard to be relieved of duty.