Spotlight: Raven Wilkinson

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on Raven Wilkinson, who is credited as the first African-American ballerina.

She was born Anne Raven Wilkinson in New York City on November 2, 1935. Her father's dental practice was across the street from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Wilkinson developed a love of ballet at the age of 5, after her mother took her to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform Coppelia.

Her mother, who had also studied ballet, took her to the School of American Ballet, but was told they could not accept Raven until she was nine. Initially, she trained in the Dalcroze Eurythmics method, until her uncle gave her the gift of dance lessons at the Swoboda School for her ninth birthday. The teachers there included the Russian Bolshoi dancers, Maria and Vecheslav Swoboda. The school would later be known as the Ballet Russe School.

When Sergei Denham bought the Swoboda School in 1951, the students were given the opportunity to audition for his company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Raven auditioned twice, and was rejected each time. Though she was an excellent dancer, gaining a position was unlikely due to her race. At the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo reunion in 2000, Raven herself commented that her chances of getting into the company were slim as its directors foresaw problems should she accompany them to the American South. Her fellow students discouraged her from auditioning again, but on her third attempt in 1955, she was accepted into the company for a six-week trial period. She was 20 years old.

Raven Wilkinson in costume for the Waltz in Les Sylphides

By her second tour with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Raven had been promoted to soloist, routinely performing the Waltz Variation from Les Sylphides. She also danced in Ballet Imperial, Le Beau Danube, Capriccio Espagnol, Gaite Parisienne, Giselle, Graduation Ball, Harlequinade, Swan Lake, and Variations Classiques.

Raven faced a number of difficulties on the tour, especially in the segregated South. When the company stayed in 'whites only' hotels, she kept her race as secret as she could. Raven later told an interviewer that she didn't want to put the company in danger, but if she had been asked, she would not have lied. At the start, this method of coping worked well, as there were a number of foreigners in the company including several South Americans, and she blended in.

Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides

In 1957, however, when the company were performing in Alabama, Georgia, an hotel owner asked her her race outright. Raven refused to lie, and was sent away in a 'coloured' taxi to a 'coloured' motel. Raven herself remembered a particularly nasty episode in Montgomery, Alabama. Two members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupted a performance by demanding that the dancers surrender her to them. The company was performing Les Sylphides, in which Raven was a soloist, at that moment standing in one of four groups on the stage. The KKK members forced their way on stage and went to each group, demanding 'Where's the n----?'. None of the dancers moved, and the men eventually gave up and left.

Raven Wilkinson as Odette in Swan Lake

As word of Raven's race spread, discrimination became increasingly more common. Eventually, Denham forbade her from going to the South altogether, sending her ahead of the company to safer cities while on tour. Finally, one of the company's ballet mistresses told her she simply could not advance any further in her ballet career. Exhausted by the discrimination and believing that the near bankrupt Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was stuck in old-fashioned ways, Raven left the company after 6 years.

Raven auditioned for the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and Metropolitan Opera Ballet, among others, but she was not accepted. Disheartened, she briefly worked in a New York department store, before she joined the Angelican covent in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. But she left after just six months, returning to ballet classes and to performing where and when she could.

In the mid-1960s, Sylvester Campbell suggested that Raven approach the Dutch National Ballet. This she did, and she was accepted into the company as second soloist. In 1967 she moved to the Netherlands and stayed with the National Ballet for seven years. She danced in Les Sylphides, The Firebird, Serenade, Giselle, Mozartiana, Concerto Barocco, Swan Lake, Symphony in C, La Valse, The Snow Maiden and Graduation Ball.

At the Dutch National Ballet

In 1974, however, Raven became homesick and, aged 38, returned to America. The New York Opera asked her to dance for them, and she performed with them from 1974 until 1985. She continued to dance character roles at the opera until 2011, when the company disbanded. She also played Bloody Mary's assistant in the Broadway revival of South Pacific in 1987.

Ballerina Misty Copeland counts Raven among her mentors. She was awarded the 2015 Dance/USA Trustee Award by Copeland. Raven remains an icon in the dance world.

Raven Wilkinson with American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Jean-Baptiste Lully.

- Selene

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