Raven Wilkinson (born November 2, 1935) is an American dancer who is credited with being the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company. Wilkinson broke the color barrier in 1955 when she signed a contract to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She was promoted to soloist during her second season with the troupe, and remained with the company for six years. Wilkinson later became a mentor to American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland, presenting Copeland with the 2014 Dance Magazine Award.
Wilkinson advanced to the position of soloist in her second season with Ballet Russe and remained with the group for six years. She performed with the company across the U.S., routinely dancing the waltz solo in Les Sylphides. Her repertoire also included roles in Ballet Imperial, Le Beau Danube, Capriccio Espagnol, Gaite Parisienne, Giselle, Graduation Ball, Harlequinade, Swan Lake, and Variations Classiques.
As an African American, she faced many difficulties while on tour, particularly in the segregated South. When the troupe stayed in “whites only” hotels, Wilkinson kept her race a secret. She later told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but also never wanted to deny what I was. If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not black.'”
For two years, things went well. Because there were many foreign dancers in the company, including a number of South Americans, her skin color was not an issue. In 1957, however, she was barred from staying with the troupe when an Atlanta, Georgia, hotel owner asked her outright if she was black. Wilkinson refused to lie and was sent away in a “colored” taxi to a “colored” motel. During the same tour, members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupted a Montgomery, Alabama, performance, asking, “Where’s the n—–?”
As word of Wilkinson’s racial identity spread, discrimination became increasingly problematic in both her personal and professional life. Denham forbid her from dancing in certain locations and sent her ahead to safer cities on the tour. Ultimately, one of the company’s ballet mistresses told her she would not go any further in her ballet career and should leave to start a school of African dance. Exhausted by years of discrimination, as well as the belief that the financially stressed troupe had become old-fashioned, Wilkinson left the company in 1961.
Following her departure from Ballet Russe, Wilkinson auditioned for several U.S.-based ballet companies, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. But, she was not accepted. Disheartened, she stopped dancing for two years. Wilkinson worked briefly in customer service for a New York department store. Then, because she had always been attracted to the spiritual life, she joined an Anglican convent in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She stayed for only six months as she soon realized she had been given a great gift she had not used to its fullest. She returned to ballet classes, and not long after, to performing when and where she could.
In the mid-1960s, Sylvester Campbell, an African-American principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, suggested Wilkinson approach that company. After speaking with them, she was invited to join the troupe as second soloist. She moved to the Netherlands in 1967 and stayed with the National Ballet for seven years. She performed in Les Sylphides, The Firebird, Serenade, Giselle, Mozartiana, Concerto Barocco, Swan Lake, Symphony in C, La Valse, The Snow Maiden and Graduation Ball. In 1974, at the age of 38, a homesick Wilkinson retired and returned to the U.S.
Wilkinson did not stay in retirement long. When she returned to New York, the New York City Opera asked her to dance. She performed with them from 1974 until 1985. She continued with the opera as a character dancer and actor until 2011 when the company disbanded. Among her acting credits is the role of Malla in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1990–1991). She also played Bloody Mary’s assistant in a Broadway revival of South Pacific in 1987.
Misty Copeland, the first African American to gain principal dancer status at the American Ballet Theatre, has called Raven Wilkinson a mentor. Copeland’s children’s book, “The Firebird”, was inspired by her relationship with Wilkinson. The narrative tells of a young dancer who, with Copeland’s help, finds self-confidence and success.
Wilkinson presented the 2014 Dance Magazine Award to Copeland in December of that year. In June 2015, Wilkinson received the 2015 Dance/USA Trustee Award from presenter Misty Copeland.
Wilkinson’s biography is included in Black Ballerina, a full-length documentary currently being aired on PBS stations. The film tells the story of three black ballerinas from the past: Wilkinson, Delores Brown and Joan Myers Brown and contrasts their experiences with those of three young black dancers pursuing ballet careers.
Photo: Black America Web0