“Notice anything different about me?” asks Raven Wilkinson, the history-making dancer and resident of West End Avenue’s Lincoln Towers who, in 1955, became the first African-American ballerina to join a national ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Wilkinson and I have just seen Misty Copeland in her final performance as the elusive Ivy Smith in Broadway’s “On the Town” at the Lyric Theater. Caught in the vortex of the euphoric crowd, we flow out of the building and toward the stage door. A friend of Wilkinson’s waves us into a corridor separating the cordoned fans outside from the backstage dressing rooms, where a handful of Copeland’s closest friends and family members gather.
Wilkinson, 80, grins, revealing a discreet imperfection in her smile. “My bottom tooth broke off when I bit into a piece of bread the other day,” she says, unfazed. Then again, hiding behind a closed mouth has never been her style.
Petite, with a cafe au lait complexion and silky, long hair, she was barely 20 when Sergei Denham, the Ballet Russe’s director, invited her to join his company. The realization of a long-held dream for Wilkinson, the offer also presented risks. Jim Crow laws in the segregationist South made life difficult for performers of color. As a touring company, the Ballet Russe spent months performing throughout the South every year. Although she could have masked her racial identity, Wilkinson was reluctant to do so.
“If anyone asks,” she told Denham, “I’ll have to tell them I’m black.”
As a result, Wilkinson was not allowed to perform on several occasions. Once, she was sent off to a “colored” hotel while several of the company’s foreign-born dancers screamed, “But she’s an American!” After seven years dancing with the Ballet Russe, the company’s ballet mistress told her not to expect advancing any further than her soloist roles.
“We can’t have a black ballerina play a white swan,” she was told. The ballet mistress then suggested Wilkinson give up ballet and pursue African dance instead. No matter that Wilkinson had studied classical dance since childhood and had been praised by colleagues and critics for her lyrical artistry.
When no other ballet company would hire her, Wilkinson took a most unlikely action: she joined a convent. A disciplined, passionate life dedicated to dance bears resemblance to that dedicated to prayer. Wilkinson was struck by the convent’s daily ritual of pinning up chores required of each nun. It reminded her of the casting list posted before performances when dancers milled around, checking if they had been selected for the next show. Six months into her religious life, she realized she needed to dance, whatever the role, and she left the convent.
A friend, Sylvester Campbell, nicknamed the black Nureyev for his bold, fiery style, invited her to join him at the Dutch National Ballet. He too couldn’t find work in America. Wilkinson went, performing in a racially-accepting atmosphere for the first time. When she returned to the United States in 1974, she found a position with the New York City Opera Ballet. Wilkinson stopped dancing at the age of 50, but continued taking on character roles through 2011, when she retired at the age of 76.
Last June, Misty Copeland became the first African-American to perform the role of the Swan Queen with American Ballet Theater. Wilkinson, a mentor to Copeland, went on stage after the performance and hailed the dancer with flowers. Days later, Copeland made history again when the company’s director, Kevin McKenzie, promoted her to principal dancer–the first African-American woman to achieve that distinction in ABT’s 75-year history.
Copeland is now the subject of a new documentary on her life and career, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on Oct. 14.
In the film, Wilkinson and Copeland are shown talking ballet shop at the younger woman’s apartment. Spontaneously, they grab hold of each other’s hands and improvise “The Cygnets’ Dance,” the famous variation from the second act of “Swan Lake.” Their heads spot left, right, front and bottom, then tilt side to side in unison. Their feet snap up on relevé and their legs kick — a classical chorus line. All the while, they’re humming Tchaikovsky’s famous score and cracking smiles. The scene received cheers from the audience when the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April.
At the Lyric Theater, Wilkinson steps outside after congratulating the star. The crowd recognizes her from a photograph in Copeland’s autobiography, “Life in Motion.”
“Do you think she’ll sign my copy?” someone asks.
A group beckons her over for autographs, photographs and selfies. A tall woman in a blue dress tells me she and her six-year-old daughter traveled from New Orleans to see the show.
“We thought Ms. Wilkinson might be here for the final performance,” she says.
No one in this adoring crowd notices the missing tooth.
Later, over roasted Faroe Island salmon and Xavier Flouret Rosé at Cafe Luxembourg on W. 70th Street, Wilkinson is reflective.
“I never thought this would happen,” she says, referring not just to the events of this evening, but her entire life and career, with all their disappointments and even more remarkable achievements. “Stars shine brightly when we can go somewhere and be ourselves in our artistic pursuits.”
Reality hits as we finish dessert.
“I’m a little nervous about going to the dentist,” she says. “I don’t know why. My father was a dentist.”
Giannella M. Garrett is a Manhattan writer. She is working on a children’s picture book biography of Raven Wilkinson.