Trailblazing ballerina Raven Wilkinson has passed away at the age of 83.
The dancer, who was the first Black ballerina to sign a contract to dance full-time when she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, died on December 19. The news was confirmed by the PR team at Bonnier Publishing, whose Little Bee Books imprint published a children’s picture book about her life called Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson earlier this year. The cause of death hasn’t been identified as of yet.
Wilkinson was with Ballet Russe for six years and was bumped up to a soloist during her time with the company. In her later years, she was featured in the documentary Black Ballerina, and became a mentor to iconic dancer Misty Copeland, who is the first Black woman to be named a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland presented her with the 2015 Dance/USA Trustee Award.
In an interview with Wilkinson in February to promote Trailblazer, we spoke with her about choosing to be a trusted adviser to Copeland.
“I don’t know that art or people or God you choose, I think they choose you,” she said. “I think on the road to artistic fulfillment, only you can pass that road. No one else can have the experience for you. And so I always say, ‘I love to be the wind at your back anytime I can be.’ She can only go through the experiences herself. She’s overcome so much in a very short life compared with my 83 years, and yet, she’s such a developed young woman in such a beautiful way. So I call Misty my mentor [laughs].”
Wilkinson faced a great deal of racism and discrimination from the moment she started training to be a ballerina. She was rejected twice from the Ballet Russe before a third audition granted her entry into the company on a trial basis, eventually wowing everyone to the point where she became a soloist. And even though she was fair-skinned, Wilkinson never wanted to truly pass as white. That caused her to be denied entry into hotels the company stayed at, to be sought out by the Ku Klux Klan, and to have to make herself look more pale when they performed in the South.
Wilkinson told us that despite such barriers and hatred, she never let it stop her from pursuing her dream, which was to dance.
“I think you realize that the hate is such a waste,” she said. “It’s so meaningless. And even though you know the realities of life because you were born into this system and I lived with it all of those years, I felt they didn’t matter to me. To pursue the thing that gives you joy and is what you have a gift for is so much more than those negativities. You can’t let them form your life. You have to bat each one down and try to fight around it. You have to give it a try.”
“Nobody said, ‘We’re sure that you’re going to win this,’ but you have to at least give it a try,” Wilkinson added. “I was sure enough of myself, of wanting to dance so much, that this other stuff was so much hot air to me.”