Dancers, nondancers, choreographers and historians of dance alike will be charged by Yael Tamar Lewin’s recently published autobiography on Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
Collins’ critically acclaimed debut at the Met in 1951 happened during a time of uneasy racial integration but proved to be pivotal for African-Americans in dance, like her cousin, Carmen de Lavallade.
“Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, with her unfinished autobiography” (Wesleyan University Press, 2011) is so named because the story is told by both Collins and Lewin.
The book is divided into two sections; the first, told by Collins, is entitled “Act One,” while the second, as told by Lewin, is “Act Two.” Each act is separated by an “Intermission,” as Lewin puts it, “In order to help the reader’s transition from the dancer’s voice to my own.”
The reader is introduced to Collins’ life on her terms. It’s an intimate introduction to her loves–family, dance and drawing–as well as the struggles she encountered as a young girl desperately trying to find a place for herself and is told ever so eloquently. One very emotional example is the blow-by-blow account of an audition at the ripe age of 16 in Los Angeles for Leonide Massine, then the choreographer for the Ballets Russes.
Collins wrote: “I was alone. Not only that, but as I looked about me, everyone was white.” Although Massine was clearly impressed by her dancing and wanted to hire her, there were incredible stipulations. He explained, “I would have to paint you white…you wouldn’t want that, would you”?
Collins said, “No.”
That event notwithstanding, she managed to have a successful dance career in Los Angeles. Many years later in New York, she would break the color barrier at the Met, take the New York dance scene by storm as a modern dance teacher for the School of American Ballet, present solo works at the 92nd Street Y and conquer so much more.
We learn that Collins was an impeccable artist in every way. Years would pass before she decided to leave the world of dance and eventually New York; Collins settled in Seattle, where she gave more time to drawing and her spiritual pursuits before moving to Texas with her brother and his family. She died in 2003 at 86.
Lewin skillfully closes the gap and answers many unanswered questions about this icon in the dance world, and brings to the fore some pointed situations where Collins was confronted with prejudice, but it wasn’t until much later that the reader hears Collins on this subject.
Lewin pulls words from Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” in which Collins, one of only two dance icons featured, said, “When you get to be an exceptional Black…you don’t belong to the white and you don’t belong to the Black. You are too good for the Black and you will always be Black to the white.”
Of this, Lewin said, “This was a rare articulation of the marginalization that she might have experienced during and after her career.”
To be sure, Collins’ history is no longer foggy, and Lewin helps confirm that Collins is by far an icon of great stature. Lewin the “detective,” as she calls herself, covers the New Orleans-born Collins’ life and career with a fine-toothed comb. She details major achievements by Collins as well as some low points, including a few bouts of depression, but never without confirming statements from Collins. Beautiful photographs of Collins dancing alone or with other dancers of note fill the pages, but there is also an exquisite collection of Collins’ drawings that help bring her history to life.
This is a must-read.