Raven Wilkinson, who broke barriers as an African-American dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, died in Manhattan December 17. She was 83.
Ms. Wilkinson joined the Ballet Russe in 1955, overcoming the company's hesitation about hiring a black dancer when it toured extensively in the South. She stayed with the company until 1961, joining the Dutch National Ballet in 1967. Returning in New York City after seven years with that company, she then joined New York City Opera, where she remained in various capacities until the company folded in 2011.
Recently, Ms. Wilkinson achieved attention for her mentorship of Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Their friendship (the two met after Copeland saw Wilkinson's story in the documentary Ballets Russes) inspired Copeland's children's book, Firebird.
Born February 2, 1935, in Manhattan, Anne Raven Wilkinson saw her first ballet—a Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo production, as it happened—at the age of five. She trained privately with Maria Swoboda until Swoboda's school was bought by Ballet Russe, ultimately joining that company after four auditions. But despite her accomplishments as a trailblazing dancer, "she used to say that her race was not of significance, other than that it was imposed on her,” her brother, Frost Bernie Wilkinson Jr., told the New York Times. “All she wanted was to dance.”