Ballet pioneer Raven Wilkinson to be celebrated at Ebell 

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The life and legacy of Raven Wilkinson — the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical dance company — will be celebrated from 4 to 7 p.m. March 19 at the Ebell Theatre with a tribute performance.

The performance will include students from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the Colburn School Ballet Dancers with Saiko Fujii and the Ralph Gibson Trio. 

The event is being produced by Robyn Gardenhire, the founder and artistic director of the City Ballet of Los Angeles, and UC Irvine Dance Historian Ariyan Johnson.

Gardenhire became friends with Wilkinson, who broke ground in 1955 when she joined the Russe de Monte Carlo, a major classical dance company of the era.

“I read an article about Wilkinson in Dance magazine,” Gardenhire said, while I was a dance student at the New York City opera. I called the opera and said I wanted to talk to Ms. Wilkinson. 

“Two days later, she called me. She said, ‘How can I help you?’ We met for lunch and we became friends. She talked about herself and we chatted about the dance world. She was a lovely older woman, chipper and positive. She even brought along a bottle of wine,” Gardenhire said with a chuckle. 

Born in Harlem, New York in 1935 to a father who was a dentist and a mother who was a homemaker,  Wilkinson became a ballet fan at a young age, after seeing Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform the ballet “Coppelia.”

As an adult, Wilkinson challenged the perception that African Americans had “no place” in ballet.

“There was an overall opinion that black people couldn’t dance classical dance,” she said in a 2005 interiew.

Undaunted, Wilkinson auditioned three times for the Ballet Russe. Turned down the first two times, she was finally accepted into the company on her third try. During her six years with the company, she was promoted to solo artist during her second season with the troupe.

Eventually she left the Ballet Russe to dance with the Dutch National Ballet, signing on as a soloist and later she joined the New York City Opera.

But Wilkinson, as the first Black dancer with a major company,  was faced with many hurdles as she toured with the Ballet Russe troupe, especially in the segregated South.

When the troupe stayed in “whites only”  hotels, Wilkinson kept her race a secret. She later told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but also never wanted to deny what I was. If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not Black.'”

“She experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experienced in the ballet world at this point,” ballerina Misty Copeland said. 

Wilkinson later became a mentor to Copeland, who is now the principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.

Wilkinson died Dec. 17, 2018.

Admission to “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of World-Renowned African American Ballerina Raven Wilkinson” is $25. The Ebell Club of Los Angeles is located at 743 S. Lucerne Blvd. Phone number: 323-931-1277.

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.

       
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