Saturday, February 25, 2012
Night's Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, African American Pioneer
Dancer Janet Collins, born in New Orleans in 1917 and raised in Los Angeles, soared high over the color line as the first African-American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins,chronicles the life of this extraordinary and elusive woman, who became a unique concert dance soloist as well as a black trailblazer in the white world of classical ballet. During her career, Collins endured an era in which racial bias prevailed, and subsequently prevented her from appearing in the South.
Nonetheless, her brilliant performances transformed the way black dancers were viewed in ballet. The book begins with an unfinished memoir written by Collins in which she gives a captivating account of her childhood and young adult years, including her rejection by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Dance scholar Yaël Tamar Lewin then picks up the thread of Collins’s story. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with Collins and her family, friends, and colleagues to explore Collins’s development as a dancer, choreographer, and painter, Lewin gives us a profoundly moving portrait of an artist of indomitable spirit.
Born in New Orleans, March 7, 1917, Janet moved with her family to Los Angeles at age 4. She received her first dance training at a Catholic community center and went on to study primarily with Carmelita Maracci, one of the few ballet teachers who accepted black students, and with Lester Horton and Adolph Bolm.
She auditioned in Los Angeles for the Ballet Russe but said she had been told that she would either have to have special roles created for her or dance in white face. ''I said no,'' she told Anna Kisselgoff in a 1974 interview in The Times. ''I sat on the steps and I cried and cried.'' But the rejection spurred her, she said, to work even harder, hard enough to be an exception.
Janet danced with Katherine Dunham and performed with the Dunham company in the 1943 film musical ''Stormy Weather.'' She also danced a solo choreographed by Jack Cole in the 1946 film ''The Thrill of Brazil,'' and worked with the filmmaker Maya Deren.She toured with Talley Beatty in a nightclub act that was sometimes billed as Rea and Rico De Gard to prevent speculation about the two light-skinned dancers' race.
Janet taught dance, choreographed, performed on Broadway and in film and appeared frequently on television. But she was best known as the exquisitely beautiful dancer who was the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan, four years before Marian Anderson sang there.
''She was a great inspiration to me as a child in Trinidad,'' the dancer and painter Geoffrey Holder said. ''What she did by dancing the way she did -- to be prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House -- gave everybody hope.''
Janet made her New York debut in 1949, dancing in her own choreography on a shared program at the 92nd Street Y. John Martin, dance critic of The New York Times, described her as ''the most exciting young dancer who has flashed across the current scene in a long time,'' calling her style an eclectic mix of modern dance and ballet.
''There is a wonderful sense of aliveness in the dancer's presence and in her moving,'' Martin wrote. ''She is not self-absorbed, but is dancing completely and wholesouledly for an audience. On the other hand, there is no air of showing off about it, no coyness or coquetry, but only an apparent desire to establish and maintain a communicative contact.'' He praised her for the sharp, clean precision, ''the piquant tang, the arresting mental vigor'' of her dancing and choreography.
Janet's next triumph came the following year on Broadway in the Cole Porter musical ''Out of This World.'' Playing the role of Night, she danced an airborne solo created for her by Hanya Holm. She went from there to the Metropolitan, where she appeared as a principal dancer.
She performed lead roles in ''Aida,'' ''Carmen,'' the Dance of the Hours in ''La Gioconda'' and the Bacchanale in ''Samson and Delilah.''
It was not until two decades after she left the Met, however, that she was to receive major attention again in New York when, in 1974, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid homage to her and Pearl Primus as pioneering black women in dance.
Janet was most active during the 1950's, when she toured with her own dance group throughout the United States and Canada and taught at academies including the School of American Ballet, affiliated with the New York City Ballet, Harkness House and the San Francisco Ballet School. She died on May 28, 2003 at the age of 86, in Fort Worth, Texas. In recognition of her great work and dedication, her renowned cousin Carmen De Lavallade established the Janet Collins Fellowship which would honor aspiring talented ballet dancers.
Five minute trailer on the documentary, To Dance is to Live!, which highlights Janet'slife and career.