Arts·Q

Misty Copeland honours the trailblazing Black ballet dancer Raven Wilkinson in her new memoir

A principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Copeland was on Q with Talia Schlanger to discuss her new memoir The Wind at My Back.

The ballerina and author was on Q with Talia Schlanger to discuss her new memoir The Wind at My Back

Misty Copeland stands with her arms crossed against a black backdrop.
Misty Copeland. (Drew Gurian/MasterClass)

Misty Copeland is among the world's most famous ballet dancers, but for much of her career she was told that her Blackness was a problem. 40 years earlier, another African American ballet dancer, Raven Wilkinson, overcame similar prejudices to dance at the highest levels, later becoming Copeland's mentor and friend.

In her new book, The Wind at My Back, Copeland shares their intertwined stories of facing adversity, self belief, and success. "Raven is really everything that we are told black dancers are not and cannot be," Copeland says in a new interview with Talia Schlanger on CBC's Q

Copeland was named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater in 2015, becoming the first Black woman to do so at ABT. With the company, she has performed as The Firebird in Stravinsky's Firebird, Swanilda in Coppélia, and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first Black woman to become principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Her heartfelt new memoir, The Wind at My Back, pays tribute to her mentor and fellow dance pioneer Raven Wilkinson, who performed in the segregated South as a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s. Copeland joined guest host Talia Schlanger to talk about Wilkinson's incredible life and legacy.

She was well into her career before she saw herself reflected in ballet history, having been told that these roles were not made for Black women. 

"We've been told that we will ruin the aesthetic of these ballet blanc ballets, where it should just be white bodies wearing white tulle, and anything other than that will take from the integrity of the choreography and vision," she tells Q.

Copeland discovered Wilkinson in a film about the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, where Wilkinson danced from 1955 to 1961. Copeland says, "I was stunned, an hour and a half into this documentary, when this Black ballerina came onto the screen and started talking about her experience of dancing in the company. I had no idea that she existed. I had no idea there was a Black woman that ever danced at the Ballet Russe." 

Wilkinson performed across North America with Ballet Russe alongside dancers from across the globe. As they toured the Jim Crow South, Wilkinson faced the explicit racism of the era — even hiding from the KKK, who were threatening her life. Copeland describes how Wilkinson approached the experience. 

"She looked at these people with kind of a broader way of seeing the world, where it was like everyone's experiencing something in their lives. We've all been taught these things by someone before us, and it's not necessarily that person's fault," she says. "I learned so much about how to have empathy for other people, and grace, and the incredible hope that she always had."

After six years of touring with Ballet Russe, fellow dancer Nina Novak suggested that Wilkinson's time with the company had come to an end. "She put it this way: 'We couldn't have a black swan,' and that I should get out and start a company of my own doing African dances," Wilkinson says in a clip, talking about her decision to leave Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo.

Copeland says that many Black dancers are told to pursue African dance, despite dedicating their lives to classical ballet. Wilkinson went on to dance with the Dutch National Ballet and New York City Opera, continuing as a character dancer and actor until 2011, before passing away in 2018. 

"Raven was powerful and soft and graceful," she says. "She had just these incredibly articulate feet and hands and warmth in her face that I think allowed for everyone to be able to connect and relate to her." 

Hearing about the adversity Wilkinson faced changed the way Copeland looked at her own career. "It literally was in that instant, I recognized that I had a much bigger responsibility than I ever knew I had — not just to be a Black body on the stage, which in and of itself is a protest, but to use my voice beyond my body. To use my voice to share the stories of other dancers that have come before me," she tells Q.

"I was really just trying to figure out if ABT was the place for me or if ballet was even what I should be doing. This was the headspace I was in when I met Raven for the first time. It was such an incredible opportunity to be able to connect with this woman who had paved this path and blazed the trail for me to even be in the position that I was in."

Copeland has been sharing Wilkinson's story for years, educating people about the impact Black dancers have in the ballet world. She says now is a particularly important time: 

"With Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, I think it's important that we acknowledge and educate people on the fact that Black people are not a monolith, and that we are so much more than we are often given credit for, or seen as." 

Wilkinson made Copeland feel like she belongs, and is just as entitled as anyone else to fair opportunities in ballet institutions. "[Black women] do have a deep and rich history within this art form," says Copeland, "and I felt like it's up to me to use this platform, to use American Ballet Theater's platform, and all the other platforms that would eventually come, to speak on my experiences and share so many other stories."

In her career as a dancer, Copeland says she has felt pressure to succeed for future generations of Black dancers. If she didn't perform well as a solo dancer, it would prove racist expectations that Black women cannot live up to this role. 

"I didn't want to let down my community and maybe take away opportunities for the future Black and brown women in the ballet community," she says. "I think that you can truly see who someone is on stage and [they're] in the most vulnerable, naked state. I think you truly see their heart and their soul and their spirit." 

For Copeland, the feeling of truly making it in the ballet world is when she performs as the white swan Odette/Odile in Swan Lake — something Wilkinson never had the chance to do. It's just one role out of many that were closed off to her because of racism. When Copeland was cast, Wilkinson was shocked. 

"She was certain I could do it, but once I was actually cast she said, 'Well, I knew you could do it, but I just didn't know it would ever happen in my lifetime,'" says Copeland.  "It gives me so much pride and closure, if that's the right word, knowing that Raven got to witness me being promoted to principal dancer and she got to witness me be the Swan Queen."

The cover of The Wind at My Back is a photo of Wilkinson presenting Copeland with flowers at her Lincoln Center Swan Lake debut, a stage where Wilkinson never performed. 

"I just think it's so timely," says Copeland, "to share the importance of mentorship and intergenerational relationships, especially between two Black women."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lian McMillan is a writer for CBC News Entertainment and Education. She holds a bachelor of music from the University of Toronto and is completing Humber College's radio and media production graduate certificate program. She can be reached at @lian.mcmillan on Twitter.

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