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The Color of Cells

2019, Solo

This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, whose cells became the basis for the first “immortal” cell line in modern medicine. It is also a story of ethics and privilege.

About the Piece

The project begins with the story of the HeLa cells, the first line of human cells to be cultivated. The cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. During the treatment against the tumor, the cells were extracted from Henrietta Lacks and passed on to a laboratory without her knowledge. There, it was discovered that the cells were “immortal”. From these cells, the scientists were able to grow the first human cell line. With these cells, many medical discoveries became possible, such as polio vaccination, or advances in cancer and HIV/AIDS research.

The cells remained anonymous, and became the foundation on which a multibillion dollar industry was built – while Henrietta Lacks’ family was neither informed, nor participated in the profits.

Only in the early 90s, the story of the HeLa cells became known and caused debates about ethics and privilege worldwide. Today, there is a foundation under Henrietta Lacks’ name, and her story has inspired films, documentaries, and plays, with Oprah Winfrey among others.

Christoph Winkler and Lois Alexander take this history as a starting point to think about privilege and racism, which are even apparent in cancer. Christoph Winkler has had cancer himself for a year and will provide his own observations, acting as a counterweight to Henrietta Lacks’ story. Lois Alexander brings both stories together as the moderator. Alexander compares the different social situations in which disease unfolds, reflecting on their contradictions. She has also been bearing witness to Christoph Winkler’s fight with cancer, and will testify to it. Alexander’s observations will flow into her dance, adding a physical, sensual level to the project.


Concept: Christoph Winkler | Dance: Lois Alexander | Production Manager: laura Biagioni |Technical Director: Fabian Eichner | Video Installation: Josephine Freiberg | Production Assistant: Gabriella Fiore |

A Christoph Winkler production in collaboration with Ballhaus Ost. Funded by the Berliner Senatsverwaltung für Kultur and Europa.