Black History Month Spotlight: Janet Collins

Written by Stephen Karakashain

At only 5’2” tall, Janet Collins was a wisp of a woman who commanded a riveting presence on the ballet stage. Despite unrelenting discrimination against African Americans she became a towering figure in the world of ballet because of her pluck and persistence, but above all due to her talent. Barriers fell and doors opened not only for her but for many African American dancers who followed. She undertook all this with unshakeable determination and unfailing grace. Like many young dancers she initially questioned her ability, but she never doubted her worth as a human being, and that proved to be her secret weapon.

Janet was born in New Orleans in 1917 and grew up in Los Angeles where she was denied admission to ballet schools because of her race. In some cases instructors who desired to admit her feared doing so, because white students would have left. Undaunted, she opted for private instruction which was, of course, more expensive. Even though her family was of modest means, they encouraged her talent and paid for her training.

Her talent was prodigious. When she was about sixteen, the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo came to Los Angles, and Janet decided to audition. She was the only person of color and she lacked an accompanist, bringing instead a portable phonograph. When she finished her audition, the company dancers, who had been watching, burst into applause. Leonid Massine beckoned to her, and on the spot, offered to take her into the company. He then looked at her and said, “I would have to paint you white.” Then, no doubt realizing who she was, he added, “You wouldn’t want that, would you?” Janet’s response was simply, “No.”

Unable to join an existing company, Janet embarked on a highly successful solo career for which she did her own choreography and costume design. Then in 1949, after moving to New York City she gave her first solo recital there at the 92nd Street Y, a legendary arts venue, after which she received a standing ovation. The reviews were spectacular. The New York dance critic Walter Terry wrote:

There is no more exciting moment than that one in which the theater-goer discovers for himself a great artist. Such a moment came to many last Sunday afternoon when Janet Collins made her New York debut . . . . It took no more (and probably less) than eight measures of movement in the opening dance to establish her claim to dance distinction as the most highly gifted newcomer in many a season.

Another review by Terry written a few months later:

She is such a remarkable performer, however, that one doesn’t really care much what she dances . . . . She moves so exquisitely, so tellingly and with such radiance that one is content to bask . . . in the sheer beauty of her movement. . . . Such a gift, although the result of hard work and careful nurturing, is also magical. . . . One simply accepts the magic and believes in it.
It took no more (and probably less) than eight measures of movement in the opening dance to establish her claim to dance distinction as the most highly gifted newcomer in many a season.
—Walter Terry

In 1950, Collins joined the cast of a new Cole Porter Broadway musical, Out of This World. It was not one of Porter’s great works, and it closed after 157 perfomances. Janet had a relatively small part, but she again received rave reviews and in one performance the applause for her dancing simply stopped the show. The part led to the biggest break of Collins career.

The Metropolitan Opera was in the midst of a major transition. Rudolf Bing had just begun his 22 year stint as the General Manager and had hired a new choreographer, Zachary Solov. Solov had seen Collins dance in Out of This World, and he soon offered her a job at the Met, which she joined in 1951. Its prestige and the backing of Rudolf Bing throughout her appointment opened the possibility for black dancers at prestigious companies ever after. In 1954, to the Met’s great dismay, Collins decided she had accomplished enough and resigned her post.

The rest of her life by comparison seems uneventful. She taught at a number of colleges and eventually moved to Seattle where she led a quiet life and became active at St. James Cathedral. She also became an oblate at the Mt. Angel Benedictine abbey in Oregon. There, she took the name Scholastica, who was the twin sister of St. Benedict himself. In failing health, in 2000 she moved to Fort Worth to be with her brother Erne and his wife Linda. She died on May 28, 2003 at the age of eighty-six. It was her brother’s birthday.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am indebted to an award-winning biography of Janet Collins. Called Night’s Dancer, it is authored by Yaël Tamar Lewin and Janet Collins, and published by Wesleyan University Press.

2 thoughts on “Black History Month Spotlight: Janet Collins

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.