On December 17, at the age of 83, ballet icon Raven Wilkinson, the first black woman to sign a contract with a major company, passed away | PEDRO DE LA HOZ
THE OUTSTANDING Cuban dance critic, Roger Salas, based in Spain, put us on the trail: on December 17, at the age of 83, Raven Wilkinson passed away in Manhattan. He rightfully described her as an icon of ballet history, having been the first black woman to sign a contract with a major company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, active in the United States between 1938 and 1962. After being rejected twice, Wilkinson went for a third audition in 1955, and was finally accepted. She was just 20 years old.
Although she came from a well-to-do family living in the Harlem neighbourhood, racial prejudice weighed heavily on a society marked by discrimination based on skin colour. It was unthinkable that a black woman could secure a spot in a classical dance company. However, Raven was so moved when, at five years of age, she attended a performance of Coppelia by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, that she decided to dedicate her life to that art form.
She took classes at the school of the American Ballet and later, aged nine, thanks to funds provided by an uncle, she managed to enroll in the Swoboda academy, characterized by its rigor. Her teachers, Maria and Vecheslav Swoboda, brought the experience of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.
Wilkinson’s biggest difficulties came during the company’s tours of the southern states, where racism was most entrenched. In reality, she was mixed race, a “mulata” as we would say, and on stage she passed as “white” by means of make-up, on the directions of the company management, which didn’t want to incite fundamentalist audiences in their rejection of African Americans. She was also told never to comment in public on her ethnic identity.
In 1957, the owner of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, saw her and asked if the dancer he was to host was black. She refused to respond and was ordered to stay in another hotel, isolated from the rest of the company.
During that same tour, in Montgomery, two Ku Klux Klan members stormed a rehearsal. They brazenly and threateningly asked: “Where is the black woman?” The members of the company protected Wilkinson and the racists had to leave with their tails between their legs.
Faced with so many problems, the dancer chose to leave the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1961. She even temporarily abandoned classical dance, disappointed with the unsuccessful auditions to enter other companies, such as the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet and the Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera House.
In 1966, she secured a contract with the Dutch National Ballet, with whom she performed for seven years. She didn’t dance again in the United States until 1974, invited for the occasion by the dance company of the New York City Opera.
In spite of everything, her example served as an inspiration for African-American boys and girls passionate about ballet. From one of them, Misty Copeland, currently at the peak of her career, Wilkinson was a mentor. Copeland visited Cuba not so long ago to meet with our Alicia.
Interviewed by Time magazine in early 2018, Copeland, the first black woman to be promoted to principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre, stressed that “a lot is still so much the same” as in Raven’s day.
In this regard she added: “The one difference is that the world outside ballet has changed. We won’t be told to leave the company because our safety is at risk, but I had a similar experience being told to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit in with the rest of the company. I’ve talked to so many dancers who have had it even worse than [what] I’ve experienced. Raven and I both have a light complexion, but darker dancers have experienced much worse.”