Raven Wilkinson

American ballet dancer Raven Wilkinson was born in New York City on 2 February 1935, and became interested in ballet from the age of five. Her first teachers included Maria and Vecheslav Swoboda, well-known dancers from the Bolshoi Theatre.

In 1954 she auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but was rejected twice. On her third attempt the following year, she was accepted for a six-week trial, aged twenty. The significance of this was that she had been advised not to seek a position due to her African-American heritage, although she was quite light-skinned, and so she became the first African-American woman to dance with a major classical ballet company.

She became a soloist in her second season with Ballet Russe, and worked with the group for a total of six years, routinely dancing the waltz solo in Les Sylphides. She also had roles in other ballets including Cappriccio Espagnol, Giselle and Swan Lake.

For two years she kept her non-white heritage secret, especially while touring, but in 1957 a hotel-owner in Atlanta, Georgia refused to let her stay, and in Montgomery, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupted a performance, asking 'Where's the nigger?'

Word of her racial identity spread, and it became increasingly difficult for her to dance in certain locations. She left the company in 1961, and was unable to dance for two years, auditioning with other companies but not being accepted, and going through a difficult time, dancing only occasionally.

Eventually, she was invited to approach Dutch National Ballet, and was accepted as second soloist, moving to Holland in 1967 and working with the company for seven years, where she performed in ballets including Les Sylphides, The Firebird, Giselle, Mozartiana, Concerto Barocco, Swan Lake, Symphony in C, La Valse, The Snow Maiden and Graduation Ball. In 1974, aged thirty-eight and homesick, she retired and returned to the USA.

New York City Opera asked her to dance, on her return, and she worked with them from 1974 until 1985, continuing as a character dancer and actor until the company folded in 2011.

Wilkinson was an inspiration and life-long mentor to Misty Copeland, the first African American to become Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, whose book The Firebird was inspired by her relationship with Wilkinson.

Raven Wilkinson died on 17 December 2018, aged eighty-three.