Dancer Raven Barkley at work
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From the waist up, the photograph reveals a warrior: Eyes wary, jaw set, muscled arms planted defiantly on hips. From the waist down, it shows a ballerina: tutu flaring, legs fully extended and tightly together in a relevé, feet in fifth position. Gunpowder and grace. Dangerous energy and delicate elegance.
Charlotte Ballet chose this image for its “Pretty/Powerful” campaign, linking it to promotions for “The Nutcracker” and making Raven Barkley’s a face to remember. Dance Magazine did the same, adding her to its “25 to Watch” list for 2018.
Not bad for an artist who decided at 10 – when future dancers, especially girls, embrace their destiny – that ballet was a bore.
“My mom and sister trained in dance, and I’d go to their classes,” she says. “Ballet seemed dull to watch and dull to do. The epiphany came in middle school. (Mom) forced me to take an audition for Ballet Tech, the New York public school for dance. I threw a little temper tantrum, but surprisingly, they kept me to the end.”
There she took remedial classes to learn ballet vocabulary, but “I liked the challenge. I’m the kind of person who likes to work for things. Because I was shy, dance gave me a way to express myself. Once I went en pointe, though my feet hurt, I thought, ‘How beautiful this is!’ I realized it was a real job, one I could do for a living.”
Out went thoughts of being a basketball player (“I was really good”), meteorologist or lawyer. She attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the “Fame” school), where she learned everything from Martha Graham technique to tap.
She landed on the cover of the scholastic book “Beautiful Ballerina” and took classes at Dance Theatre of Harlem with people who told her, “You’re good enough to dance professionally.” LaGuardia awarded a scholarship to be used at a conservatory, so she majored in dance at the State University of New York-Purchase. (She planned to minor in math/computer science but didn’t. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in computer science.)
In her senior year at SUNY, she auditioned for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Richmond Ballet and Charlotte Ballet. “You pay to audition, so I was selective,” she recalls. “(Artistic director) Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux asked me to come down and take a class in 2015, and I fell in love with the city. I was happily stunned when I was hired.”
Teachers had singled out athleticism and strength as big assets, and Bonnefoux especially responded to her energy: “When I step onstage, I really connect with the emotion of what I’m doing.” Even in school, she’d realized that “When the lights come on, the adrenaline kicks in.”
At 25, Barkley calls herself “a work in progress. I want to be more graceful. I was a fiery fairy in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which suited my personality, but I want to try more roles that aren’t as natural to me. I’m still learning what my limits are.”
Sudden extra visibility with Charlotte Ballet hasn’t put pressure on her: “It’s just nice to feel I’m representing the family.” It may give her a chance to inspire young dancers, which she hopes to do. If so, she can teach the lesson she was slow to comprehend herself.
“One of the best things I learned from Jean-Pierre is that there’s no such thing as perfection,” she says. “It’s easy as a dancer to be hard on yourself, and I’m a perfectionist by nature. Now I just want to be the best Raven I can be.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.