Raven Wilkinson: The first African American to be a member of a major ballet company in the United States
When Raven Wilkinson was about five years old, her mother took her to the City Center Theater to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The ballet was Coppelia and when the curtain opened, Raven was enraptured by what she saw on the stage. From New York City, her mother was influential pursuing ballet training for her. Wilkinson began studying with a well-known Russian dancer when she was nine. After being inspired by seeing Janet Collins on stage in the early 1950s, she left school in her teens to pursue ballet full time.
When the director of Ballet de Russe purchased Monte Carlo, her ballet school the students were invited to try out for his company. Sergie Denham, director of the school and company, was impressed with Raven’s progress. He offered her a strange proposal: Denham wanted her to be part of the company without a contract. He told her that there was another girl in Chicago he wanted to see before giving her a contract. Raven felt they wanted to see how she would be accepted in the south. Raven made it clear that she would not advertise that she was black, but she would not deny it either. When they got to Chicago without any problems, it turned out that there was no other girl.
In 1954 they gave Raven a full contract, making her the first African American to be a member of a major ballet company. In the second season she was promoted to soloist, and stayed with the company for six years. On a tour of one-night stands she roomed with Eleanor D’Antuono. For two years there was no problem until a black elevator girl recognized her as African American and reported her to the management in Atlanta, Georgia. Even though she had roomed at the same hotel in the past, the clerk wouldn’t let her stay. They called a cab to take her to a black hotel. Eleanor was going to go with her, but because of segregation Eleanor wasn’t allowed to stay in a black hotel.
In Montgomery, Alabama the KKK heard there was a person of color performing in the theater. During rehearsal they marched down the aisle in their white robes and on to the stage. They asked each group of girls if they knew which one was a negress; no one would answer, even in her group. That night Raven danced in the performance. When the season was over they didn’t fire her but suggested that she had gone as far as she could in the company. Raven was tired after six years of one-night stands, and she took this as a sign that it was time to leave. Getting another job as a dancer was very difficult, so Raven, who had always been a devout Catholic, joined a convent. After eight months her love for ballet and theater made her realize that the stage was where she wanted to be. Raven found that no other major ballet company would hire her, even though she was willing to go back into the corps de ballet. In 1967 she went to Holland and became a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet.
Tanya Howard: First Soloist with The National Ballet of Canada
A native of Uitenhage, South Africa, Ms. Howard trained at The National School of the Arts in South Africa and Canada’s National Ballet School. She joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1998 and became a First Soloist in 2007.
Ms. Howard’s repertoire includes featured roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Four Seasons, La Ronde, Giselle, Les Sylphides, Elite Syncopations, Voluntaries, Song of the Earth, Balanchine’s Don Quixote and Opus 19/ The Dreamer.
Ms. Howard created the featured role of Twig in James Kudelka’s Cinderella, the female lead in Matjash Mrozewski’s Monument and a featured role in Mr. Mrozewski’s Wolf’s Court. She also performed in the world premieres of Jorma Elo’s Pur ti Miro and Aszure Barton’s Watch Her
(George Balanchine observing as Debra Austin performs Ballo Della Regina) Debra Austin received a scholarship to the school of American Ballet when she was twelve years old. At the age of sixteen she was hand picked by George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet. While there, she danced many principle roles by both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. One of these was filmed for a PBS television special, “Live From Lincoln Center”. Additionally, she appeared with Jerome Robbins in a TV special for NBC, “Live From Studio H”. Ms Austin also toured with the company throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union. Leaving New York City Ballet, she went on to join the Zurich Ballet of Switzerland. There she danced many principle roles in works by Balanchine as well as Panov, Von Manon and Heinz Sporli. When Rudolph Nureyev choreographed Manfred on the company, Ms. Austin was given the opportunity to dance one of the leading roles with him as well. She toured with Nureyev and the Company to Italy, London, England’s Convent Gardens. Returning to the United States, she was invited to join the Pennsylvania Ballet as principal dancer. There she went on to dance most of the Company’s contemporary works by many choreographers as well as the classics such as Swan Lake, Coppelia, A Mid-Summers Night Dream and both roles in Giselle and Myrtha. She danced the Sylph in La Sylphide, staged by Peter Martins, now director of the New York City Ballet, to again dance with Rudolph Nureyev, alongside Suzanne Farrell, as one of the three ballerinas in Balanchine’s Apollo. she danced at a Gala Performance at the Academy of Music, hosted by Bill Cosby, in which Grover Washington played the saxophone. Ms. Austin was asked by Lynne Taylor-Corbett to be her assistant in Ms. Taylor-Corbett’s “The Dancing Princesses” commissioned by Edward Villella to be choreographed for Miami City Ballet. This work premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on April 25, 1995. Ms. Austin has taught in many schools in Florida including the American Cultural Center in Miami, the Palm Beach Dance Center and the Miami City Ballet School. Ms. Austin relocated to North Carolina in the summer of 1998 with her husband Marin Boieru (principal dancer, Carolina Ballet) and daughters Bianca and Olivia to join the faculty of the Cary Ballet Conservatory, directed by Suzanne Clark and also to serve as the “Ballet Master” for the Carolina Ballet, directed by Robert Weiss, training their professional company members and staging performances.
Janet Collins, one of the few classically trained Black dancers of her generation. In 1932, at age 15, she auditioned with success for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but because she was required to paint her face and skin white in order to be able to perform, she chose not join the company. In 1951, Janet Collins became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York.
More about Janet
Lesley Collier was born in Orpington, Kent, England in 1947. She studied with the Royal Ballet School. She graduated in 1965 and joined the Royal Ballet where she was promoted to principal in 1972. She was a dancer of rare musicality and was called the queen of variations. She danced the leading ballerina roles in La Fille Mal Gardée, Anastasia, MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty. She retired in 1995 and took up teaching at the Royal Ballet School.
Jan Burkhard (Principal at Carolina Ballet) began studying dance at the School of American Ballet in New York City at age nine. She also studied at Miami City Ballet’s summer intensive program. She performed the role of Marie in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker as a child. Jan was selected to participate in SAB’s student choreographic workshop and in New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute.
Kylee Kitchens (Soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet) is from Laguna Hills, California. She trained at Westside Ballet Academy, where she studied with Yvonne Mounsey and Rosemary Valaire, and on scholarship at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet in 2000 and was promoted to soloist in 2012. Ms. Kitchens danced in the BBC’s 1999 film version of PNB’s production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. In 2005, she performed Marius Petipa’s Paquita as a guest artist with Los Angeles Ballet.
Watch Kylee in Afternoon of a Faun
BROOKLYN MACK (The Washington Ballet) Mr. Mack began his dance training at age 12 with the Pavlovich Dance School under Radenko Pavlovich and Milena Leben before receiving a scholarship to study at the Kirov Academy of Ballet. Mr. Mack then apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and later joined American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company. Before joining TWB, Mr. Mack spent three seasons as a principal dancer with Orlando Ballet. He has performed internationally at Ballet Clasico de Camara with Nina Novak in Venezuela, Latvian National Ballet, NBA Ballet Company in Japan and many others. Notable awards include the Kirsti Paakenen Encouragement Prize at the 2005 International Ballet Competition in Helsinki, Finland, the silver medal at the 2006 Jackson International Ballet Competition (Mississippi), the Princess Grace Fellowship Award (2007), the silver prize at the 2009 Helsinki IBC, the bronze medal at the 2011 Boston IBC, the Marius Leipa Prize at the Boston IBC (2011) and the silver medal at the 2011 Korean International Dance Competition.
Watch Brooklyn in Le Corsaire
Stephanie Hutchison (First Soloist with The National Ballet of Canada) Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Stephanie Hutchison graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School. She danced with Ottawa Ballet and Ballet BC before joining The National Ballet of Canada in 1997. Ms. Hutchison was promoted to First Soloist in 2003.
Margaret (Peggy) Severin-Hansen (Principal with Carolina Ballet) is a founding member of Carolina Ballet. She grew up in Huntington, Long Island where she studied dance at the Huntington School of Ballet until she went to the School of American Ballet when she was 13. She also studied for six weeks with the Royal Danish Ballet. She joined Carolina Ballet in 1998 as a member of the corps de ballet and quickly rose through the ranks to principal dancer.
Lucien Postlewaite (Principal with The Pacific Northwest Ballet) is from Santa Cruz, California. He trained on scholarship at the School of American Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. While a Professional Division student at PNB School, he received a Level II Award for ballet in the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts’ 2003 Arts Recognition and Talent Search. Mr. Postlewaite joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2003 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2004, soloist in 2007, and principal in 2008. He was a 2008 recipient of a Princess Grace Award.
Watch Lucien as Albrecht in Giselle