Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to be admitted to a major American ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, died Monday, Dec. 19, at her home in Manhattan. Wilkinson was a warm, witty and gracious 83-year-old whose life story embodied the trials and tribulations Black women encounter in a world where one impresario once said a ballerina’s skin should be the color of the inside of an apple.
In 2015, the world learned of Wilkinson’s historic career when American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland became the first African-American ballerina to be named principal in that company’s 75-year history. Copeland identified Wilkinson as a mentor and an inspiration. In fact, when Copeland made her New York debut in the leading role of ballet’s iconic “Swan Lake,” Wilkinson and Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson presented her with a bouquet.
Copeland, bereaved on Wilkinson’s passing, said, “I’m still speechless. She gave me the strength to continue pushing on when I felt defeated as a Black woman in a career that has not traditionally been open to us. She embodied what it is to be a leader and game-changer. I wouldn’t be here without her. There’s no Misty without Raven. I’m forever grateful to her for being my champion, mentor, representation, friend, honorary grandmother and ultimately the missing link for me to see what my responsibility, future and legacy in ballet could be. I love you, Raven, and I will miss you every day. And, you will always be the wind at my back, every time I step onto the stage. You will live on in every Brown girl and boy who has the beautiful responsibility and privilege of experiencing the incredible art form of ballet.”
Wilkinson’s love of ballet began at an early age. Smitten after seeing a Ballet Russe performance of “Coppelia,” her mother tried to enroll the 5-year-old in the School of American Ballet, only to be told she was too young. Eventually, Wilkinson was admitted to a school owned by former Bolshoi Ballet member, Maria Swoboda, where she continued studying even after the school was bought by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Sergei Denham.
“I auditioned for the company three times,” Wilkinson said. “Then, a friend told me, I think as an act of kindness, ‘You know. Don’t go to the next audition. There really is no way they can take you in Ballet Russe because they travel.’”
The thought had occurred to her, but hearing it was hurtful. She went home and thought about it, not telling her parents for fear of both hurting them and giving them a reason to stop her lessons. Instead, Wilkinson said, “I determined that you don’t get anything sitting down and feeling sorry for yourself, and I just was going to go back and audition. I knew they liked my dancing because…we had a sort of idea of who they were interested in. And, I knew I had a gift of movement. …So I just said I can’t just sit there and take somebody else’s word for it.”
When they started weeding dancers out during the audition, Wilkinson’s name was called. She said, “I thought they’d tell me, ‘You’re a lovely dancer, but we really just can’t take you into the Ballet Russe.’ I walked into the room and I noticed that people had kind of anxious, but happy anticipatory smiles on their faces. Madame Swoboda was in the corner with Madame Alexandra Danilova and Leon Danileon. Mr. Franklin was standing there beside Mr. Denham. He [Denham] wasn’t a very heavy man, but he had a very portly front and he said, ‘How would you like to be in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo?’ And you know what? I smiled and I don’t think I said a word. I was so shocked. I just stood there with my towel around my neck. And they were, they seemed so happy. They were smiling. They seemed so happy to say to me, ‘We’re taking you into the company.’”
Thus began a historic chapter of her life, a chapter she said her parents, Dr. Frost B. and Anne J. Wilkinson, were asked not to share with the media because it would jeopardize the Ballet Russe’s bookings, particularly, in the segregated South. Wilkinson did tell Denham that if asked, she would not deny she was Black.
Eventually, after a couple of years, word got out, sparking several racist encounters that included members of the KKK disrupting a rehearsal demanding, “Where’s the nigger?” Years later, I asked National Ballet de Cuba’s Alicia Alonso about the incident. She recalled the men standing in front of all the dancers, including her, asking if she was the one they were looking for. Met with silence, they gave up and left. On another occasion, a hotel manager enlisted a Black staffer to point out the company’s Black ballerina as they checked into his hotel. When the woman pointed to Raven, the manager confronted her and when she replied “Yes,” she was forced to move to a “colored establishment.”
At first the incidents didn’t dampen her love of dance. Wilkinson enjoyed performing the company’s remarkably varied repertoire, including a featured role in “Raymonda,” Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” the “Waltz of the Flowers” in “The Nutcracker” and more.
Eventually racism took its toll and in 1961 Wilkinson left the company. She recalled when it became clear her “time at the Ballet Russe had come to a close,” someone on staff suggested she start an African dance company. Wilkinson sighed and said, “I was a trained ballet dancer.”
After auditioning for other companies, including ABT, Pennsylvania Ballet and others, “It got tiring,” Wilkinson said.
She added, “I stopped. I interpreted this time of great disappointment with dance and ballet as a sign that it was time created to go into something else.”
She joined a convent in the Midwest. But before long, ballet lured her back, thanks to another African-American ballet dancer—Sylvester Campbell—who found opportunity outside the country denied him here at home. Wilkinson joined the Dutch National Ballet and remained there for seven years before returning to New York, where she joined the New York City Opera’s ballet ensemble. Later she became a member of the cast of extras and stayed with the company until it folded in 2011.
Dance was Wilkinson’s life. She also loved encouraging young Black ballerinas to pursue their passion. Their success brought her joy. Of Misty Copeland she said, “There’s something about Misty. When she dances, it’s like a flower opening its petals to
She praised Michaela DePrince, the young Sierra Leone-born ballerina whose star is rising on the international stage. Recalling a conversation with DePrince about skin color, Wilkinson lamented, “Oh my God, how many years have I heard that? Not just to me, but to just dancers. Your body this. Your body that. It is so wearing.”
Once, speaking to DePrince, as if talking to all Brown ballerinas, Wilkinson said, “I just want you to dance what you want to dance.” Her life was a living embodiment of that wish.
Voicing what many felt at her passing, Carmen de Lavallade said, “Raven was a bright sun on a rainy day, humor under stress and had a laugh that could heal. It’s been my luck to meet her and bask in her light.”
Wilkinson is survived by her brother, Frost Bernie Wilkinson Jr.