Today, Misty Copeland was named Principal Ballerina at American Ballet Theatre, the first Black ballerina in the company’s 75 year history. The photo on the right is Ms. Copeland being congratulated by one of her idols, Raven Wilkinson. Ms. Wilkinson was the first Black woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955 - but racism stunted much of her career in the United States. The photo on the right was taken by Gene Schiavone. The photo of Ms. Wilkinson in the 1950s was provided by her to Pointe Magazine
Although she is best known as
a ballerina, Yvonne Chouteau began her career as a Shawnee dancer. An experienced powwow dancer by the age of
three, Yvonne was introduced to a wider audience when she performed at
festivities celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood in 1932. Yvonne quickly became a sough after
performer, appearing at the World’s Fairs in Chicago, New York, and San
At age five, Yvonne began
studying ballet. At age 12, she won a
scholarship to the American School of Ballet in New York City. Two years later, she joined the Ballet Russe
de Monte Carlo as the company’s youngest ever dancer.
After performing around the
world with the Ballet Russe, Yvonne returned to Oklahoma with her husband
Miguel Terekhov. The couple founded both
the Oklahoma City Ballet and the dance program at the University of Oklahoma, the
first fully accredited university dance program in the United States.
Before Misty Copeland made history as the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Janet Collins set the stage in 1951 as the first Black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Though Collins broke down barriers, she did not do so without confronting racism along the way. In 1932, while in her late teenage years, she auditioned with Leonide Massine for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He was more than happy to hire her, but only under one condition - she had to cover her face and body in white makeup in order to perform. Collins refused his offer, instead choosing to dance with Katherine Dunham’s company.
By 1947, she secured her first solo concert in Los Angeles, receiving rave reviews for her performance. She would repeat this success in New York City, with critic John Martin describing her in The New York Times as the “most exciting young dancer who has flashed across the current scene in a long time”. Soon after, she was hired to dance on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World, taking the role that would inspire the Metropolitan Opera to hire her for their 1951 production of Aida.
Collins performed additional roles at the Met in Carmen, La Gioconda and Samson and Delilah, eventually retiring in 1954 to focus on teaching and choreography. She disappeared from the public eye in her later life, during which she devoted herself to completing religious paintings.
In June 2014, Karyn Parsons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce an animated short film about Collins’ journey. The finished product, entitled Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story, is now available for streaming on Netflix.
The recently passed Ivonne Chouteau. She danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was one of the few famous Native American ballerinas of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of NewsOk from the Daily Oklahoman, circa 1956, via Pointe magazine’s Facebook page.
Michel Panaieff (11 January 1908 - 7 February 1982) and Igor Youskevitch (13 March 1912 - 13 June 1994), star dancers in the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, in their dressing room in the Palais de Chaillot during the 1939 Season. Photo by Serge Lido.
Maria Tallchief as Eurydice in Balanchine’s Orpheus (c.1948). George Balanchine Trust/New York City Ballet Archives.
When Tallchief arrived in Paris in 1947 to join her new husband, George Balanchine, the Paris Opera, where she was to perform several ballets, was in a state of nervous decline. She was barely 22 and as yet unknown, a half-Osage Indian who had studied ballet with Russian émigré dancers and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as it toured America. And now she was dancing for Balanchine.
Portrait of the Ballerina Natalie Krassovska (1934). Savely Sorine (Russian, 1878-1953). Watercolour, heightened with white, coloured crayons and pencil on paper, laid on canvas.
Krassovska joined the Ballet Russe de Paris in 1935 and René Blum’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1936. In 1938, she became a member of the Massine-Denham Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. During her time with the troupe, Krassovska worked closely with Mikhail Fokine who coached her for roles in Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and other ballets. She advanced to the position of principal dancer.