Ballet Stars

Remembering Raven Wilkinson, Trailblazing Ballerina

Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

Ballerina Raven Wilkinson passed away on Monday at her home in New York City at age 83. Wilkinson is best known as the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and as a cherished mentor to Misty Copeland.

Raven Wilkinson presenting Misty Copeland with the Dance Magazine Award in 2014. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima for Dance Magazine.


Wilkinson was born in New York City in 1935. She fell in love with ballet at age five while attending a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's Coppélia. In a 2014 interview with Pointe, she recalled the experience: "I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying." For her ninth birthday, her uncle gave her the gift of ballet classes with Maria Swoboda. In 1951, Swoboda's school was purchased by Sergei Denham, the director of the Ballet Russe, and he began culling dancers for his company. Despite being recognized as talented, Wilkinson didn't make the cut. After multiple auditions, Wilkinson said a friend pulled her aside and said, "Raven, they can't afford to take you because of your race." Then a student at Columbia University, Wilkinson was undeterred; after her third audition in 1955, at age 20, she got in. Shortly before he passed away in 2013, former Ballet Russe dancer Frederic Franklin, who'd given class at Wilkinson's final audition, told her that he had pushed the company's leadership to take her.

Wilkinson's six years with the Ballet Russe were filled with both happiness and hardship. In her second season she was promoted to soloist, and danced a number of leading roles including the waltz solo in Les Sylphides. But Ballet Russe was primarily a touring company, and Wilkinson had to combat extreme racism during trips to the Deep South. In 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, a hotel owner refused to let her stay with the rest of the company; Denham sent her back to New York and instructed her to rejoin the company once their tour took them closer to the Mason Dixon Line. Wilkinson also experienced run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, most notably in Alabama, where (as she outlines in the picture book Trailblazer) two members stormed into the theater and interrupted a Ballet Russe performance. Throughout these years, Wilkinson's colleagues protected and supported her: "If it looked like there might be trouble after a show, company boys would appear at the stage door to escort me," she told Pointe in 2014. Denham continued to cast her in soloist roles regardless of where the company was performing.

Wilkinson with her younger brother and parents. Courtesy Wilkinson.

The Ballet Russe was very international, and with her fair complexion some of the other dancers urged Wilkinson to say that she was Spanish. She often lightened her skin with makeup for performances, but she refused to hide her identity if asked about it directly. Earlier this year, Wilkinson told Pointe that she attributed this pride to her upbringing. Though she grew up on 150th Street in Harlem (above what she called "the Mason Dixon Line of New York"), she and her mother often faced questioning when spending time in other parts of the city. "People were curious because they had a certain idea in their mind of what African American people were like, that they didn't speak well or weren't well-clothed or were poor, and they didn't believe my mother and I were African American," she said. "They'd ask, 'What are you?' and my mother would say, 'We're American.'"

In 1961, Wilkinson left the Ballet Russe. Despite her classical training and professional experience, at auditions she was told to try African dance or jazz instead. Eventually her friend Sylvester Campbell, a black American dancer working for the Dutch National Ballet, urged her to join him in Amsterdam. Highlights of her Dutch National career included Balanchine repertoire and the Swan Lake pas de trois. Wilkinson found the culture of the Netherlands to be much more accepting. "They weren't interested in what you were, but who you were," she said in our interview earlier this year. In 1974, a homesick Wilkinson returned to New York and was invited to join the New York City Opera. She stopped dancing at age 50, but continued on there as an actress until 2011, when the company folded.

Wilkinson, center, with colleagues in the Ballet Russe. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

In her later years, Wilkinson developed a special friendship with Copeland. Wilkinson first discovered the then-teenage dancer while watching a TV program highlighting her in a variation from Don Quixote. "I took one look at her and knew that she knew what dancing was all about," Wilkinson told Pointe. I fell to my knees saying, 'Please god, let her make it.'" Copeland writes in her memoir Life in Motion that after hearing Wilkinson's story in a documentary on the Ballet Russe, she spoke about her so often that her publicist finally tracked her down so the two dancers could meet. "She is humble, hilarious, and so full of funny, poignant tales that she never repeats one," Copeland writes of Wilkinson. "We speak the same very rare language: that of a black classical ballet dancer." When Copeland made her debut as Odette/Odile with American Ballet Theatre in 2015, Wilkinson, along with former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson, joined her onstage, arms overflowing with flowers. Copeland's breakout success has also helped bring Wilkinson's story back into the spotlight: Wilkinson was featured in the 2016 documentary Black Ballerina, and last year a picture book based on her life titled Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson was published with a forward by Copeland.

Earlier this year I asked Wilkinson if she had advice for young dancers who might feel discouraged, or who don't feel they fit into the slowly-changing world of ballet. "In the darkness and the futility of the moment you have to get up and keep going, put one foot in front of the other. It's only in trying and keeping going that you achieve," she told me. "You can't expect that it's all going to happen for you just because you're out there pointing your toes nicely. You have to open your mind and heart, and you must believe in yourself and have faith and hope."

The Conversation
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You might say, "You just had to be there," about the Joffrey Ballet's 2017 world premiere of John Neumeier's reimagined Orphée et Eurydice with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. But on January 18, audiences from around the country will have a chance to witness this extraordinary collaboration up close, from the comfort of their living rooms, as PBS stations broadcast Orphée et Eurydice on "Great Performances".


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Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.

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Every once in a while, the stars align, things fall precisely into place, and the perfect marketing campaign is born. Such is the case with New York City Ballet's new trailer for their upcoming run of The Sleeping Beauty.

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Photo captured via YouTube.

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Aurelie Dupont - Dulcinea www.youtube.com

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We sat down with James K. Payne, School Director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, to hear his thoughts about students auditioning for summer intensives this winter. We think you'll be very interested in what he has to say.

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Christopher Duggan for Pointe

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Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

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Courtesy VAM Productions

Raise your hand if you're excited for competition season! Youth America Grand Prix Regional Semi-Finals are well underway, leading up to the much-awaited New York Finals April 12-19. Even better, they're live-streamed, meaning you now have the perfect excuse to spend your weekend at home, watching ballet (while sewing your pointe shoes and stretching, of course).

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Ballet Careers
Chase Johnsey (second from right) in English National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Elliot Franks, Courtesy In The Lights PR.

George Balanchine famously said "Ballet is woman." He should have added that ballet is man, too, because it has long been defined by the traditional male-female binary. A formal challenge to the paradigm was launched in June, when Chase Johnsey was offered the opportunity to dance female corps roles in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in London.

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Johnsey isn't alone. Jayna Ledford and Scout Alexander, two young transgender dancers, are training hard to break into the professional ballet world. We spoke with them about the dreams, achievements and challenges of nonbinary artists in the intensely gendered world of ballet.

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Ballet Stars
All photos by Jayme Thornton for Pointe

From marriage to career transitions to injuries, our 2018 cover stars have had a busy year.

Find out what they've been up to since they graced the cover of Pointe and what they're aiming for in 2019.

American Ballet Theatre's Betsy McBride

Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe

New Year's Resolutions: School and Self-Care

My New Year's resolutions are to complete my Associate of Science degree, sleep more, and slow down from time to time to appreciate the little things in life.

Life Updates: Star Studded Performances

Since appearing on Pointe's cover, I performed in the New York Ballet Stars Gala in Cape Town, South Africa in honor of Mignon Furman. I also performed in a very exciting Balanchine Tribute Festival at City Center with American Ballet Theatre alongside Joffrey Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.

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You can read our February/March 2018 cover story on Betsy McBride here.

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Melanie Hamrick for Flexistretcher, via @flexistretcher

ABT corps dancer Melanie Hamrick will be taking a leave of absence from the company's spring season, but for the best reason possible: She's working on her own ballet. Her piece is set to premiere in March, and will feature music curated by Hamrick's longtime boyfriend, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger (cue the moves like Jagger puns).

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Sono Osato, a trailblazing ballet and musical theater dancer, passed away last Wednesday at her home in New York City.

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International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

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Ballet Stars
Boylston and Whiteside brought charm and technical brilliance to Harlequinade. Photo by Alan Alejandro Sánchez, Courtesy ABT.

Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Marius Petipa's Harlequinade, which debuted this spring at American Ballet Theatre, felt as fizzy and decadent as a glass of champagne. Though resplendently designed and lovingly assembled, the ballet relied on the personal charms of its Harlequin and Columbine to buoy its all-too-poppable bubble of a plot. And nobody brought more charm, or technical brilliance, to the leading roles than the opening-night cast, James Whiteside and Isabella Boylston. The charismatic duo perfectly understood the lightweight fun of the ballet, relishing the beauties of its coloratura choreography while keeping the extended mime passages just to the right side of camp. Their offstage best-friendship—they're known to their Instagram fans (including Jennifer Garner) as "the Cindies"—lent a special warmth to their onstage partnership, especially in the ballet's surprisingly tender climactic pas de deux. Audiences floated out of the theater afterward, pleasantly intoxicated.

Harlequinade www.youtube.com

Viral Videos
Vienna State Ballet first soloists Olga Esina and Roman Lazik, via YouTube.

Vienna really knows how to ring in the New Year with its annual concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, filled with the waltzes of the Strauss family and other composers. The best part? Broadcasts of the event (shown in the U.S. on PBS) also include interludes of ballet. On January 1, catch dancing from the Vienna State Ballet on PBS' Great Performances' "From Vienna: The New Year's Celebration 2019" (check local TV listings). (Editors Note: You can now watch the full 2019 concert here!) In the meantime, here is a collection of gorgeous videos from New Years' past.

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