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February 03, 2021
Author, Hannah LeComte
In an interview with Pointe Magazine, Anne Raven Wilkinson gave the following advice to dancers: “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…You have to open your mind and heart, and you must believe in yourself and have faith and hope.”
Wilkinson was born on February 2, 1935 in New York City. After attending a performance of Coppélia at the age of 5, Wilkinson fell in love with ballet. At the age of 9, her parents, Frost B. Wilkinson and Anne J. Wilkinson enrolled her in ballet classes at the Swoboda School, which would eventually become the Ballet Russe School.
She attended the Professional Children’s School in New York City for the last two years of high school to finish school and her training. After graduation, she decided to audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which at the time was under the direction of Serge Denham.
The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was based in New York City, but was known primarily for its tours of the United States. Because the Ballet Russe company frequently toured to the Jim Crow South, the company was hesitant to hire a black dancer. Wilkinson auditioned three separate times before finally securing a contract in 1955. In doing so, Wilkinson became the first African American woman to receive a contract with a major ballet company in the United States.
While dancing with the Ballet Russe, Wilkinson performed soloist roles in ballets including Les Sylphides, The Nutcracker, and Raymonda.
On the company’s tours to southern states, specifically Alabama and Georgia, Wilkinson faced intense racial discrimination. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, segregation and racist hate crimes still persisted throughout the United States, but were more blatant in the South where groups like the Klu Klux Klan were particularly active. Before, during, and after performances, Wilkinson endured racial slurs, profiling, and harassment from audience members, hotels, and restaurants. This eventually caused Wilkinson to stop touring to the South.
Wilkinson toured with the company for 6 years, performing soloist roles but never receiving a formal promotion to Soloist. Wilkinson left the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1961 and went on to dance with the Dutch National Ballet from 1966-1973. In 1974, she moved back to the United States to dance with the New York City Opera until 1985. After retiring from ballet, Wilkinson helped stage performances with the New York City Opera and taught ballet at the Harlem School of the Arts.
Raven Wilkinson passed away at the age of 83 in 2018 but not before paving the way for future generations of dancers. She will be forever celebrated for her persistence, determination, and devotion to her art form.