Audiences paid little attention to race when ballerina Raven Wilkinson was on stage.
“Raven Wilkinson was the first African-American ballerina,” says James Atkinson, artistic director of Ballet Savannah. “She traveled with the Ballet Russe. She was a soloist with the company at a time when blacks were not usually accepted as ballet dancers.”
On Feb. 17 and 18, Ballet Savannah and Sankofa Dance Theatre will collaborate to stage The Root of Dance. The evening will include tributes to Wilkinson, Coretta Scott King, James Brown, Maya Angelou and other African-American leaders..
Dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem will be featured, as will authentic African drummers. Local musicians, poets and choirs also will participate in a celebration of Black History Month.
Among the highlights of the evening will be an excerpt of the classical ballet, La Sylphide, as a tribute to Wilkinson. “No one cared about her color, they cared about talent,” Atkinson says.
Wilkinson was offered a full contract by Ballet Russe in 1954. In Atlanta, an elevator operator asked her if she was African-American and Wilkinson replied that she was. The elevator operator, who herself was black, told the hotel management.
Even though Wilkinson had stayed at the hotel in the past, the clerk refused to let her stay. A cab was called to take her to a hotel for blacks. “The press found out about it and it became a huge story,” Atkinson says.
In Montgomery, Ala., the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the theater where the ballet company was performing and marched down the aisle in white robes and on to the stage. “There was such a huge controversy, that Ballet Russe let her go after the season.” Atkinson says.
Wilkinson had so much trouble finding another job, she joined a convent. However, after eight months, she left the convent and eventually went to Holland where she became a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet.
In 1974, Wilkinson returned to the U.S. and became a member of the New York City Opera. She still performs there.
The tribute to Coretta Scott King emphasizes her bravery in carrying her husband’s mission forward in spite of the danger to herself and her children. “It’s about a woman who loses her husband, but continues to fight for his beliefs,” Atkinson says.
In a lighthearted dance, Nikki Wilson of the Dance Theatre of Harlem will present a tribute to James Brown. Wilson choreographed the piece herself.
“It’s really fun doing a tribute to James Brown,” she says.“It has ballet movements and technique, but done with a sense of fun.
so caught up in technique,” Wilson says.
“I wanted to do something fun, with the freedom to let loose and liven it up a little.”
Wilson hails from Mobile, Ala. “I started dancing when I was young,” she says. “I just started doing my own choreography. I especially enjoy it because I get to do classical ballet, but I also do something of my own.”
The Root of Dance will be enjoyed by all ages, Wilson says. “It’s got pretty much everything, for people who are interested in classical ballet to something much more contemporary,” she says. “I think there’s something for everybody.” ƒç
Ballet Savannah and Sankofa Dance Theatre will present The Root of Dance Saturday, Feb. 17 and Sunday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Armstrong Atlantic State University Fine Arts Auditorium. Tickets are free to the public. Call Ballet Savannah at 352-7487.