Two years ago, a group of celebrities decided to create an animated feature about the career of Janet Collins, one of the finest ballerinas in America. Her stellar life would be developed by the Sweet Blackberry organization, which chronicles the achievements of often-neglected African American talents, under the leadership of Karyn Parsons, the actress popularized in the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Comedian Chris Rock has been chosen to narrate the upcoming 20-minute feature.
Who was Janet Collins? Most Americans do not know Collins, who was the first black prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s and a force in American classical ballet. What makes her remarkable career is that it excelled during the political firestorm of Jim Crow and racial discrimination. This notable life is revisited in journalist Yael Tamar Lewin’s recent biography of the dancer, Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, a hybrid of the pioneer’s words and the writer’s observations.
Born in March 7, 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Collins moved with her family to Los Angeles, California, where her parents encouraged her in dance classes. Her first instruction occurred at a Catholic community center, a series of classes that spurred her to seek further guidance from teachers, including Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton, and Adolph Bolm. These whites saw no difference in the abilities of their young black charges, contrary to the popular belief at the time.
Critics of the diversity in modern dance embraced the black stereotypes, the erotic, the vulgar, the primitive, the other. They remembered the huge buttocks and breasts of Venus Hottentot, which captured the national interest generations before. The black physique, according to some, lacked the elegance and grace required for classical dance.
As master dancer Alvin Ailey commented about the furor over the African American body, he said: “Those were the days when they told you, ‘Your hips are wrong, your back is wrong, your feet are wrong, your legs won’t turn out, so don’t come to our ballet school.”
The magnificence of this book is that Collins’s words were gleaned from her unfinished autobiography to start the work. Lewin, writing on assignment for Dance Magazine in 1997, did a piece on Collins. In fact, she thought they would collaborate on her memoirs, but the dancer lost interest in the endeavor while confronting health issues.
The first two chapters of the book consist of her thoughts as she sets the table for what is to follow, the bulk of the Lewin’s text compiled from research of the New York Public Library and Met Opera archives.
“As early as I can remember, I loved to dance and I loved to paint and draw,” Collins wrote. “My entire family encouraged me – in fact, we were all encouraged to follow our natural endowments. Actually, I remember no one in my entire family ever being like anyone else – all were staunchly individual, and outspoken. It is a miracle how we ever managed to be a family, but that we were.”
Collins struck to her dream of dance despite society’s objections that she quit. In 1932, she, as a 15-year-old girl, auditioned for the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which demanded that she painted her face and skin white to enhance her performance. She refused the job.
Later, Collins was interviewed by the New York Times in 1974, explaining her response to the racist request. “I said no,” she said emotionally. “I sat on the steps and I cried and cried.”
With her art skills, Collins was awarded a scholarship to Art Center College of Design in 1936, but she continued to dance. She performed in Lester Horton’s Le Sacre du Printemps at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by dancing two years later in a Federal Theatre Project, a revival of Hall Johnson’s Run, Little Chillum. At 21, she performs in the Los Angeles run of Swing Mikado and joined with actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on a national tour to New York.
Evolving into an artist of worth, an individual must dedicate herself to a goal with a determination and steel resolve that sometimes stretches her reality. Real zeal. Collins realized that she was different from others in her environment, but she paid the emotional price, although her family supported her in every way possible.
“I was alone, very alone in the midst of a very large and loving and contentious family,” the dancer wrote. “This is not unusual for any artist born into a family who are not artists. We are a bit like “the ugly duckling” who grows up to be a swan. We are somehow considered ‘different from the rest’ – the ‘normal’ members of the family.”
Eager to move on with her young adult life, she eloped with Charles Holland, a widowed singer with Hall Johnson’s choir. They were married by a justice of the peace. Some in her family thought she was trying to escape her family. The marriage ended after nine months, caused by Holland’s cheating, and she returned home with a warm welcome from her parents. She was later troubled by her father’s scathing words about her failed union: “She stole her from me.”
Severely depressed, Collins was admitted to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California, a victim of the eugenics policy of “asexualization.” She underwent the surgery with the permission of her parents, totally unaware that her life would be shaped by this major procedure. Her mother said she was depressed and mentally ill, and should not bring any children into this world. Her father said there was nothing wrong with his child. However, his daughter would be plagued with severe bouts of depression throughout her life.
It was to her credit that Collins did not stop pursuing her dance career. She joined the Katherine Dunham dance company in 1941 and added her Collins magic to the Duke Ellington soundie, Flamingo, with master dancer Tally Beatty. She danced in the film, Stormy Weather, in 1943, and later did duets with Beatty in the black musical revue, Sweet ‘n Hot. Hollywood called again as she performs in the nightclub scene, “Rendezvous in Rio” in the film, Thrill of Brazil.”
After Collins’s arrival in New York City, she gave her first recital at the 92nd Y to mostly positive media notices and started dancing teaching at the School of American Ballet. In 1951, she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for performance in Cole Porter’s Out of this World. For three years, the dancer was hired as the first black ballerina by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, dancing in the productions of Aida, Carmen, La Gioconda, and Samson et Dalila.
In her later years, she taught dance at several colleges and choreographs numbers for the San Francisco Opera and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. Although Collins broke down racial barriers in modern dance, she was a fine painter and embracing the Benedictine order as an oblate. She died at age 86 in 2003 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Lewin’s major work on Janet Collins documents this extraordinary woman as an accomplished dancer, choreographer and painter. It is told with respect, close to the facts, without sensational tidbits. It is a celebration of an artist who went against the odds and won. As the great dancer, Katherine Dunham, said: “It would be impossible for anybody who was at all interested in dancing, I think, to overlook her. She just stood out.” Needless to say, this book should be required reading for anyone seeking to be an artist.
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