Moments in Time

Virginia Johnson as Giselle at The Royal, with Zoltán Solymosi

Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn in a later performance of The Nutcracker

February 1954
Maria Tallchief dances the Sugar Plum Fairy in the premiere of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Though Tallchief, who was half Osage Indian, had great success earlier on in parts that played on her “exotic” look—particularly the title role in The Firebird (1949)—dancing Sugar Plum cemented her status as a leading classical ballerina.

 

Raven Wilkinson in costume for Les Sylphides

1957
Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, experiences difficulties during the company’s tour of the Deep South. The owner of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, refuses to let her stay in the hotel with the other dancers; in Montgomery, Alabama, two members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupt the company’s performance. The Ballet Russe later pulled Wilkinson out of performances in the South, partly to ensure her safety. In 1966 she began a less fraught career at Dutch National Ballet.

 

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell rehearsing Agon

December 1957
George Balanchine pairs Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in Agon’s erotically charged pas de deux. In a world still a decade away from the civil rights movement, this was casting as political act, and it shocked some members of the ballet community. Twelve years later, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem, a haven for classical dancers of color.

 

Fernando Bujones at Varna (photo by Randy Swartz)

July 1974
Nineteen-year-old Fernando Bujones becomes the first American man to win a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition—Varna. Then a soloist and soon afterward a principal at American Ballet Theatre, Bujones, whose parents were Cuban, was a role model for Hispanic-American classical dancers—a group that remains small, especially in terms of women.

 

LINES Ballet dancers Tracy-Kai Maier and Christopher Boatwright in 1992

1982
Alonzo King founds LINES Ballet, a diverse group of dancers performing works drawing from an array of cultural traditions. LINES was one of the first companies to see racial diversity not as an end in itself but as part of a larger mission. In later years other new companies—Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—would take up this model.

 

Virginia Johnson as Giselle at The Royal, with Zoltán Solymosi

January 1992
Dance Theatre of Harlem star Virginia Johnson dances the title role in Giselle with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Johnson had previously performed in DTH’s production of Creole Giselle to great acclaim. But this performance—an African-American ballerina dancing the lead in a “white” ballet with a predominantly white company—had special significance.

 

Lauren Anderson as Cleopatra

March 2000
Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson creates the title role in director Ben Stevenson’s Cleopatra. Anderson was the company’s first black principal and for years the world’s only African-American prima ballerina. Stevenson, a mentor since Anderson’s days as a student at Houston Ballet Academy, built Cleopatra specifically for her, mentioning in interviews that the original Cleopatra may have been black. The role would become one of Anderson’s signatures.

 

 

Photos from top: courtesy Dance Magazine Archives; Courtesy Raven Wilkinson; Marty Sohl; courtesy Dance Magazine Archives; Martha Swope © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Drew Donovan; Leslie E. Spatt.

 

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