A Sunday, March 19 performance by dance students at The Ebell Club Los Angeles will celebrate and pay tribute to a pioneer in the ballet world.
Raven Wilkinson was the first African American woman to dance full-time for a major classical ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in New York. She danced with the company for six years, becoming a principal dancer in a typically all-white profession, and later went to Europe to join the Dutch National Ballet as a soloist.
Wilkinson, who died in 2018 at age 83, will be remembered at Sunday night’s talk and performance at The Ebell, a non-profit that hosts cultural events celebrating and supporting women. The program will be led by dance instructors and students from L.A. County High School for the Arts and the Colburn School.
Though she faced adversity at different moments throughout her dance career, Wilkinson became an inspiration for the next generation of diverse dancers — including ballet icon Misty Copeland, who wrote a book about their friendship, “The Wind At My Back.”
Organizers of the event say they want more people in and outside of the dance world to know Wilkinson’s story.
“She was a Black ballerina — and in the ’50s and ’60s, during those times, that was unheard of,” said Robyn Gardenhire, founder of the City Ballet of Los Angeles, who befriended Wilkinson. “She was a trailblazer… she would always talk about how nothing would ever stop her from dancing. She always said that no one should be excluded.”
Wilkinson grew up in Harlem, surrounded by dance and culture, and learned classical ballet from a young age. She auditioned several times for the Ballet Russe, where she was initially rejected because of her race. When she finally joined the company in 1955, at age 20, Wilkinson quickly became a stand-out soloist, and was promoted the lead or featured role in many shows.
Though a rising star, she also experienced racism while on tour with Ballet Russe. She was shut out from dancing in segregated cities in the South, and had close run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while traveling in Alabama. In her children’s book, Trailblazer, Wilkinson tells the story of Ku Klux Klan members storming into the theater and interrupting a show one night. At some performances, she had to lighten her already-fair skin tone with makeup, for her own safety, and was asked by colleagues at auditions to join an African dance group instead.
Weary of the discrimination she faced, Wilkinson left the U.S. and joined a more accepting company, the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. She became a principal dancer there for several years before returning to New York, later dancing with the New York City Opera until she retired at age 50.
Ariyan Johnson, a dance historian and assistant professor at UC Irvine, said that Wilkinson “paved the way” for diversity in the ballet world, which “had deep roots in elitism, and was very Euro-centric.” Johnson will give a presentation on Wilkinson’s life Sunday.
“Raven Wilkinson always had the resilience and the grace to open doors for others and extend herself as a mentor to younger dancers, like Misty (Copeland) and Robyn (Gardenhire),” Johnson said. “She was always told she shouldn’t — but she went and did it anyway.”
Sunday’s performance celebrating the life of Raven Wilkinson will be held at The Ebell of Los Angeles, 743 S Lucerne Blvd. Admission is $25.
For tickets and information: www.cityballetofla.org, tinyurl.com/ebell-raven-wilkinson-tickets, (310) 966-0505