In August 1955 at the age of 20, Raven Wilkinson became the first African American woman to receive a contract to dance full time with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City. She was promoted to soloist during her second season with the troupe, and remained with the company for six years.
Anne Raven Wilkinson was born in New York City on February 2, 1935 to Anne James Wilkinson and Dr. Frost Bernie Wilkinson, a dentist. Her family, which also included younger brother Frost Bernie Wilkinson Jr., lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Harlem.
From New York City, her mother was influential by pursuing ballet training for her. Wilkinson had been a fan of ballet since the age of five. On her ninth birthday an uncle gave her the gift of ballet lessons to the Swoboda School (later known as the Ballet Russe School), where she studied under the direction of well-known dancers from Russia's Bolshoi Theatre, Vecheslav and Maria Swoboda, both Moscow-trained dancers.
She later transferred to the Professional Children's School in the Bronx where she continued her training, remaining there through her last two years of high school. Madame Ludmilla Shollar, formerly associated with the St. Petersburg Imperial Russian Ballet, also gave Wilkinson private classes in technique. After being inspired by seeing Janet Collins on stage in the early 1950s, she left school in her teens to pursue ballet full time.
Wilkinson, was fair-skinned enough to pass for white, and her parents were told that they were not to let the public know she was black. Additionally Wilkinson often had to wear white makeup onstage to conceal her racial identity. In 1957 an owner of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, asked Wilkinson if she was black. When she refused to lie, she was barred from staying at the hotel with the rest of the Company. During the same tour two members of the Ku Klux Klan bolted on stage, interrupting a Company performance in Montgomery, Alabama, asking "Where's the nigra?" When none of the Company members responded to them, the men left.
Nonetheless as word of Wilkinson's racial identity became generally known, she was not allowed to participate in performances in Southern cities partly to ensure her own safety. The company's director prohibited her from dancing in certain towns and sent her to other cities where she could safely wait for the company's arrival. After she had been with the Ballet Russe for several years achieving great dancing success, Wilkinson was told that she was unlikely to go any further in ballet and that she should consider leaving the company to start a school of African dance. Appalled by this suggestion, and exhausted from the years of racism, Wilkinson left the company in 1961 and was never hired by another American ballet company again. After auditioning other ballet companies and not being accepted, she stopped dancing for several years, taught ballet and gave lecture/demonstrations. At one point, she was a guest teacher in the Bahamas for two weeks with a company managed by a former member of Ballet Russe.
For seven months in 1963, Wilkinson a devout Catholic, joined a convent in Font de Lac, Wisconsin. In 1966 Wilkinson received a soloist contract with the Dutch National Ballet, where for seven years, she wowed audiences across Europe, returning to America in 1973. Wilkinson returned to the United States where, between 1974 and 1985, she performed with the New York City Opera as an extra dancer. Wilkinson's acting credits include the role of Bloody Mary's Assistant in Broadways South Pacific, 1987, and Malla in A Little Night Music,1990-1991. Currently, Wilkinson is a member of the New York City Opera and today she can still be seen in many performances in an occasional character role.
Ballets Russes (DVD) Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, New York, Zeitgeist Films, 2006
Heather Wisner, "Grace Under Fire - Dancer Raven Wilkinson," Dance Magazine, February 2001
Pointe Magazine interview