By Lisa Traiger
Generations of dancers have looked to Raven Wilkinson, the onetime Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ballerina, as proof that ballet, with its narrow aesthetics and centuries-old traditions, can offer a place for dancers of color. From dancers like former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal and current artistic director Virginia Johnson to Houston Ballet’s lead dancer from 1983 – 2006, Lauren Anderson, to current media icon and American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copland, they each attest that the path Wilkinson forged as the first African American ballet dancer in a major American company was invaluable as they rose in their own careers. Between 1955 and 1961, Wilkinson toured the United States, including the segregated deep South – places like Atlanta, Georgia, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, along with the rest who she called the Ballet Russe gypsies. It wasn’t always easy, though more often than not, the light-complected black dancer was never noticed in the troupe filled with Russian, South American and European expats of varying ethnicities.
“Raven Wilkinson is inspiration! She is legacy! She is a respected elder and the impact she has had on dancers of the African Diaspora is incalculable,” emailed Denise Saunders Thompson, director of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) and professor in the Howard University department of theater arts. “Her legacy says, ‘I will make a way, when there is no way!’”
“They say that I’m like a mentor,” Wilkinson allowed modestly, “but I have to wonder... I just loved to dance. Today I hear people calling me their idol. I think, ‘Whoa, I’m an idol?’” Humility is one of the former ballet dancer’s greatest virtues, along with drive, hard work and unparalleled determination, sometimes in the face of prejudice, other times simply in the face of ignorance. Still a beauty, Wilkinson is petite, her hair pulled back in a twist, is barely streaked with gray. Her dark brown/black eyes are bright, displaying her intellect and her joy in remembering a long career devoted to her love of dance. Wilkinson recently spoke at length with Dance/USA, sharing her memories of her near lifetime in dance
Born in Harlem, Wilkinson was raised in a solidly middle-class home. Her parents, both from South Carolina, came north, her father for dental school, ultimately, opening his own practice, her mother to follow her husband. “I have a brother who came along six years after I was born,” Wilkinson said. “Until then I had my mother all to myself and she took me everywhere: we roller skated, she swam with me, swung with me, we had mother-and-daughter outfits. We were the ‘it’ girls.”
When Raven was five, her mother took her to the School of American Ballet because Wilkinson said she was always dancing around the living room. “They said, ‘We don’t accept them that young. We wait until about nine when the muscles and bones are formed.” So instead Wilkinson’s mother signed her up for Dalcroze lessons, where, she recalled, “You can be a flower or a bumblebee and we tapped out the beat on the floor. Later, I was very interested to read about the Dalcroze history: Mr. Nijinsky and Mr. Diaghilev went to actually look at the training in Germany.” Formal ballet lessons began after her ninth birthday, with money sent as a gift from her uncle in California.
“My mother let me look at the teachers and classes,” Wilkinson recalled. “We went to the American School [of Ballet] and other schools. I decided Madam Swoboda was the teacher for me. She looked like an empress. I just thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – that Russian accent, her painted nails, gold jewelry, cheekbones, and her red hair pulled back -- and she wore this perfume that stayed on my arm when I went home.”
At this point, a few of the stars of the great earlier Diaghilev-driven Ballets Russes were performing Serge Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Dehnam purchased Maria Swoboda’s school, Wilkinson said, because he saw other companies like Ballet Theatre, had their own schools. “So I would see the students who were coming up who were taken into the [Ballet Russe] company. We all had to audition in the spring. I was considered, but I just never got in,” she said.
Asked if she felt the rejection was due to her race, Wilkinson replied: “I had always thought of it as a duality. In one sense, I thought it is an issue of race, but, in another, all dancers just do the best that they can and they take classes and they just think if they take more classes … maybe he wants more ballon … or something else. So I didn’t put it all on race.” But Wilkinson added that she realized that growing up “a dark cloud” could keep her from ever being accepted into a classical ballet company: the dark cloud being her race. “I knew that I might never find any place,” she said. “But I felt, so what, you just have to go with it. And, with my complexion, well maybe there was a chance.” But as a spring audition approached, an administrator spoke with Wilkinson and advised her not to audition. “He was in contact with Mr. Denham’s secretaries so I figured he knew what he was talking about.” She recalled being told that because the company toured through the South, they couldn’t take her due to the segregation laws and racist attitudes of the era the company would encounter on tour.
“I went home and I thought, ‘You won’t get in sitting on a bench and saying, oh how awful.’ I went back to audition. Freddie Franklin gave the class and in the corner sat Madame Swoboda and Madame Danilova and Mr. Denham. They called us back one by one. I was sure they were going to say to me, ‘You’re a lovely dancer but we just can’t take you in the Ballet Russe.’ When I went in, I noticed the smiles on people’s faces. And Mr. Denham said very proudly, ‘Darling, how would you like to be in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.’ I nearly fell over. I couldn’t believe it. They were all as happy and proud as I was.”
She joined the company and prepared for the 1955 tour, which traveled to small cities and towns throughout the East and South, before hitting Chicago. Denham suggested that her spot was temporary, and that he “had a girl in Chicago.” Wilkinson asked him to be more forthright and express his concerns about her race openly. She forthrightly told him that if she was asked, she would never hide the fact that she is black.
Yet, Wilkinson said, “I never had any feeling from any of the dancers of anything but support.” She described the company as a ragtag band of gypsies, with dancers hailing from throughout Europe, South America and the U.S. Everybody got along, but when the bus, with its banner proclaiming “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, The One and Only,” pulled in to small Southern towns, the whole company often got strange looks. One woman, reported Wilkinson, asked them, “Are you all God-fearing people?”
Wilkinson has stories aplenty spanning her more than half-century stage career. One places her in a hotel in Atlanta when she goes down to the dining room full of families for a pre-show meal. She took a seat at a table, and, on the next chair over, crumpled white robes rested. She found herself in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. She realized where she was and stayed in her room whenever she wasn’t at the theater until they boarded the bus for the next stop. On how her fellow dancers acted, Wilkinson has nothing but praise: “They supported me all the way. They did it in a way, and still to this day I don’t know how they did it, it was if they themselves were black and experiencing many stereotypes. They seemed to know what to do. They knew how to manage it wordlessly.”
Another time, during her second tour with the company as a soloist, one hotel manager sensed something was different about her. Typically, particularly in the South, Wilkinson would hang back and let her tour roommate, Eleanor D’Antuono, pick up the room key or settle the bill. But the manager called over the hotel elevator operator, who was black, and asked her to point out if anyone was black in the group. She spotted Wilkinson immediately. Wilkinson was asked to leave. A cab was called to take her to what she remembers as a very nice hotel for what then were called “coloreds only.” D’Antuono wanted to go with her, but Wilkinson insisted her roommate stay behind, noting that a white roommate wouldn’t have been allowed in a black hotel either.
When Wilkinson left the company, it had been a long four years, and the stress of dancing and traveling took its toll. She danced numerous roles in ballets including Ballet Imperial, Le Beau Danube, Capriccio Espagnol, Gaite Parisienne, Giselle, Graduation Ball, Harlequinade, Swan Lake, Variations Classiques and the waltz in Les Sylphides.
It’s been written that she was specifically asked to wear white makeup on stage. Wilkinson told the story differently to Dance/USA, noting that everyone in the corps de ballet put Johnson’s baby powder on their arms and shoulders when they danced the white ballets – Les Sylphides, Giselle, and Swan Lake – it wasn’t just her. As for the face makeup, she said that the year the great Cuban ballerina, Alicia Alonso, toured with the Ballet Russe, Alonso asked the wardrobe mistress to give Wilkinson a jar of makeup that Alonso herself used to lighten her skin.
“Listen [Alonso] did wear it,” Wilkinson said. “She was very conscious of her complexion. Everybody thinks white skin is the be all and end all in a white ballet and she felt I could use some help. But she did put it on. So I did, too.” Wilkinson took a pragmatic approach because her chief focus was dancing in a classical company. “People, white and black, when they ask me about that and hear what happened, they’re disgusted and I just say I’m so thankful that [Alonso] cared enough to do that.”
In later years, when Wilkinson worked at the New York City Opera, first as a dancer, between 1974 and 1985, and then in character roles, she was sometimes asked to darken her skin for certain roles. She said, “I just want to go on stage and be the character. I will put any makeup on to add character. If my skin is wrong as the character, I will put makeup on our face, draw lines, add features.”
After her tenure at the Ballet Russe, Wilkinson did some audition rounds, with Lucia Chase at American Ballet Theatre, among others, and even met with George Balanchine, but neither could find a place for her in their companies. Then she stopped dancing entirely and joined an order of nuns briefly, in 1963.
But she found herself back in class and back in New York and received an invitation to work with the Dutch National Ballet in 1967, where Wilkinson danced many classic and romantic ballets she was already familiar with, along with a smattering of Balanchine works and others by Dutch and other European choreographers. Yet, she missed home, particularly the verve and excitement and diversity of New York. Upon returning in 1974 she immediately got cast as a dancer in the New York City Opera Ballet. Wilkinson didn’t officially retire as a dancer until 1985, at age 50, and she then continued to perform as an actor with the opera at the Metropolitan Opera House until 2011, when the company disbanded.
Now 80, Wilkinson looks back on a rich and fruitful career. She knows she was one of the very few exceptions, one of the first African American ballet dancers to dance in an American ballet company, but she’s reluctant to take all the credit, noting ballet and Broadway dancer Janet Collins, among others. Did she face difficulties because of her race? Of course. Wilkinson said, “It hurt … sometimes my heart hurt, the emotional heart and I felt real pain in my chest. I thought after I left Ballet Russe I would never get back on stage again.”
Today, as Wilkinson sees successive generations of dancers of color succeed, she knows that change is coming, though, perhaps, still too slowly. “We’re just going to have to accept the fact that we’re going to have to put people of different hues in these [classical ballet] roles,” she insisted. “Aesthetics can change once you get used to it.” She points to American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, who recently made her American debut as Odette/Odile in The Washington Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. Wilkinson is looking forward to seeing her mentee dance that role at home in New York with ABT in June 2015.
“Ballet is a very dedicated, hard road to hoe,” Wilkinson said. “What kept me going was hope: hope for myself, hope for everyone else and I have hope for this beautiful artistic expression – not just ballet but dance. It’s a very special privilege to be a part of something that speaks to people so meaningfully and takes them out of their everyday lives.”
Among those who have followed the road Wilkinson trod, is IABD’s Saunders Thompson, who stated, “Ms. Wilkinson broke racial barriers during times of deep unrest in our society. Yet even today, we continue to face those challenges.”
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
Photos courtesy of Raven Wilkinson.