Raven Wilkinson, ballet pioneer and mentor to Misty Copeland, passes at 83

Zita Allen | 1/10/2019, 4:39 p.m.

Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to be admitted to a major American ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, died Monday, Dec. 19, at her home in Manhattan. Wilkinson was a warm, witty and gracious 83-year-old whose life story embodied the trials and tribulations Black women encounter in a world where one impresario once said a ballerina’s skin should be the color of the inside of an apple.

In 2015, the world learned of Wilkinson’s historic career when American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland became the first African-American ballerina to be named principal in that company’s 75-year history. Copeland identified Wilkinson as a mentor and an inspiration. In fact, when Copeland made her New York debut in the leading role of ballet’s iconic “Swan Lake,” Wilkinson and Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson presented her with a bouquet.

Copeland, bereaved on Wilkinson’s passing, said, “I’m still speechless. She gave me the strength to continue pushing on when I felt defeated as a Black woman in a career that has not traditionally been open to us. She embodied what it is to be a leader and game-changer. I wouldn’t be here without her. There’s no Misty without Raven. I’m forever grateful to her for being my champion, mentor, representation, friend, honorary grandmother and ultimately the missing link for me to see what my responsibility, future and legacy in ballet could be. I love you, Raven, and I will miss you every day. And, you will always be the wind at my back, every time I step onto the stage. You will live on in every Brown girl and boy who has the beautiful responsibility and privilege of experiencing the incredible art form of ballet.”

Wilkinson’s love of ballet began at an early age. Smitten after seeing a Ballet Russe performance of “Coppelia,” her mother tried to enroll the 5-year-old in the School of American Ballet, only to be told she was too young. Eventually, Wilkinson was admitted to a school owned by former Bolshoi Ballet member, Maria Swoboda, where she continued studying even after the school was bought by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Sergei Denham.

“I auditioned for the company three times,” Wilkinson said. “Then, a friend told me, I think as an act of kindness, ‘You know. Don’t go to the next audition. There really is no way they can take you in Ballet Russe because they travel.’”

The thought had occurred to her, but hearing it was hurtful. She went home and thought about it, not telling her parents for fear of both hurting them and giving them a reason to stop her lessons. Instead, Wilkinson said, “I determined that you don’t get anything sitting down and feeling sorry for yourself, and I just was going to go back and audition. I knew they liked my dancing because…we had a sort of idea of who they were interested in. And, I knew I had a gift of movement. …So I just said I can’t just sit there and take somebody else’s word for it.”