Osiel Gouneo, Black Romeo, a biography

Just 33 years old, Osiel Gouneo, a principal with the Bayerisches Staatsballett, has recently published his biography. The book’s full title is Black Romeo, Mein Weg in der weißen Welt des Balletts. (Black Romeo, my way into the white world of ballet), and this well summarises his story. He made it to the top and became the first black person to dance Romeo in Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet with the Paris Opera Ballet in 2021. But elsewhere before that, he was excluded from performances because of his skin colour.

Gouneo refers to himself Afro-Cuban because his ancestors were slaves from Africa who were brought to Cuba, where he was born and lived until he left to embark on a successful career in Europe in 2013. He grew up in a poor family but, early on, his mother decided he was to become a dancer. She sent him to a boarding school teaching dance and music, when he was nine-years-old.

At first, he hated the ballet lessons and felt ill at ease among the predominantly white students. But when he was 13, a teacher showed his class some videos featuring male dancers, one of which was Carlos Acosta.

This was the first time Gouneo had seen a successful black, Cuban male dancer. He suddenly realised that he could make it too and started to work hard. Aged 14, he was accepted into Cuban National Ballet School, the largest in the world accommodating 3000 students.

After five years with the Cuban National Ballet, two as a principal, he left for Norwegian National Ballet, where he experienced two severe cases of racism. He had rehearsed intensively to dance Lensky in Cranko’s Onegin. Shortly before the premiere, a member of the Cranko Gesellschaft arrived for the final rehearsals. Although Gouneo was the only principal cast in the role, this person only practiced with the three other all- white casts, and he and his partner were not allowed to dance at the premiere.

The same happened with his parts as des Grieux and Lescaut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Lady MacMillan, who owns the rights to all her husband’s ballets, arrived to attend the last rehearsals, and for reasons never explained, he was not allowed to dance any of the roles at the premiere. These events led him to leave and join the Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2016.

The biography is beautifully illustrated

In the book Gouneo states that he does not see himself as a black ballet dancer, but as a ballet dancer, and the criteria for choosing a dancer for a role should not be skin color but ability to dance the role. The standing ovations he received after performing Onegin with the Bayerisches Staatsballett in January prove his point.

But the biography is more than a resume of a life. It also gives a rare insight into what it means to be a dancer. It describes the magical relationship between dancer and audience during a successful performance, and Gouneo offers his explanation of what makes the ephemeral artform that is dance.

Black Romeo is a collaboration between Gouneo and German journalist and author, Thilo Komma-Pöllath, who knew nothing about dance before they met. Perhaps it was his curiosity about this art form that brought forth these wonderful explanations. The book is based on interviews Komma-Pöllath conducted over a three year period.

A photo spread from Black Romeo, Mein Weg in der weißen Welt des Balletts
(Black Romeo, my way into the white world of ballet)
by Osiel Gouneo with Thilo Komma-Pöllath

Gouneo says in the book that dance is pain, because of the physical strain, but that you forget it, when you step onto the stage. But it is also an obsession, which made him dance for several months with bone fractures. Twice!

When on stage, he observes how he feels completely naked because he, without any reservations, shows who he is. But, paradoxically, the stage is also the only place, where he feels totally safe. He also recounts one of the rare moments in a dancer’s life when he felt all energies move freely between him and the audience and lifted him into an indescribable other sphere.

Technique alone does not turn ballet into dance. Gouneo explains, it is only when the movements, the role and the person, the dancer, coalesce that it becomes art.

How he tries to achieve this, he explains with an example from his performance of Romeo in Paris. He says, you must keep all the energy you create in your body, and you have to control your breathing. By doing this you can create the electrifying tension between Romeo and Juliet, which then become visible and tangible in the whole auditorium. He defines dance as an embodiment of the perpetual existential conditions, which lets you glimpse into the human soul.

Black Romeo is a story showing that you can make your dreams come true, and if you turn adversity into experiences you can learn from, you become better equipped to excel in the future.

Hopefully, Gouneo’s inspiring biography will soon be translated into English and Spanish, his native language.

Black Romeo, Mein Weg in der weißen Welt des Balletts by Osiel Gouneo with Thilo Komma-Pöllath
Published: March 14, 2024
Publisher: C.H. Beck
ISBN: 978-3406791192
251 pages
Cover price: 28.00 €