Janet Collins was the first and only African American to become Prima Ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That was over 60 years ago and she alone today still holds that accomplishment.
Just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers of baseball, Janet Collins broke the toughest barrier in the all-white world of classical ballet. Yet she still remains virtually unknown. The time to tell the Janet Collins story is NOW...
AND WE NEED YOUR HELP.
JANET COLLINS was a ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher. She performed on Broadway, in films and appeared frequently on television.
Collins started dance training at age 4. She was one of the few classically trained Black dancers of her generation. In 1951 she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for her work in Cole Porter's Out of This World. She also performed in Aida and Carmen, as the first Black Prima Ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. No one had captivated a whole stage, a whole audience, and the whole world of dance like Janet Collins did in the 1950’s. There had certainly never been such a frenzy of excitement for a dancer of color in this time.
Janet Collins was among the pioneers of black ballet dancing and paved the way for others to follow. In 1932, aged 15, she auditioned with success, for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but as she was required to paint her face and skin white in order to be able to perform. She did not join the company. In 1948, she moved to New York and got the chance to dance her own choreography on a shared program at the 92nd Street YMCA.
Janet Collins struggled time and again against racism, which did not spare the world of professional ballet dancing. Not many African-American performers achieved the successful career she was able to attain.
Telling Janet's Story
Janet always dreamed of being a ballerina dancing in front of the world. But for a little black girl in the 1920’s, that would certainly be impossible. The world of classical dance was closed to blacks or any one of color.
Even the public library in her home town of New Orleans was closed to blacks. However, Janet was not only given a remarkable talent, but she had a remarkable family that would not accept these barriers.
When denied access to the public library, her grandmother insisted the entire family relocate to Los Angeles, and they did. When Janet was denied access to dance classes with other little white girls, her Aunt Alma sewed costumes in exchange for private lessons with a worthy teacher. Her family and her early teachers recognized her extraordinary talent, and they all fought for her talent to be recognized and honed despite the many barriers of racial segregation.
At age 15, in 1932, she managed to gain entrance to an audition for The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she enchants the master Leonide Massine. He tells her she can enter the company but only “…if you paint your face and body white.” Janet refuses.
The years of segregation gave her many more obstacles, but with her unmatched talent, and love and support of her family and friends, Janet perseveres. It took dozens of years, but she finally reached her dream and the Metropolitan stage.
How? You will learn how, but as many dancers and critics have stated, “She was magic!”
The Time is Now
So many events in today’s news remind us that it is increasingly important to remember the struggles of the civil rights movement.
Yet, why is it that Janet Collins’ amazing accomplishment of becoming the first black prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera a story that remains untold?
Perhaps it is because her talent, when seen on the stage, seemed to transcend the limitations of racism. Perhaps it was her complex and elusive personal nature, layers and layers of talent and desire, which prevented her from being a simply defined icon.
Yet, Janet should be an icon. She struggled for years, but gracefully and with unequaled art. It took her over 30 years to attain the glory of the Metropolitan Opera stage. When most dancers are bringing an end to their careers, hers began to blossom and grow, boundless and in ways that surprised all that knew her.
Janet’s story and path to success at the MET can be seamlessly portrayed by her progress through the world of dance. The underlying dramatic story should include a spotlight on the important people in her life… her family, her mentors, her dance partners and others along the way who shared in her hopes and dreams.
We are lucky to have detailed records of the music, dance, theater performances, TV, choreography, costume design and teaching that Janet did. We have many voices that through song and music can tell the rest.
Starting with the rich Creole traditions and music of her childhood, we can literally trace her life through the dance choices she made. Her first love was ballet, but as that major stage would be denied her for years, she embraced every other form of dance available to her… from teaching ballet at local YMCAs, collecting a history of traditional Jewish music, but always “staying on her toes” waiting for that break in ballet.
In the early days, she danced jazz ballet with the Katherine Dunham group. When the racism she encountered on tour forced her to quit, she joined with Talley Beatty, where billed as Latinos, Ria and Rico de Guerra, they brought their Rumba Rhapsody and other performances to elite clubs, such as Top of the Mark, across the country. Her sensational sizzle in any style of dance she chose soon gained her to access to stages denied other black artists, and the attention of Duke Ellington, George Balanchine, and ultimately Rudolph Bing of the MET.
Today we have friends and family here to put together the intricate and beautiful puzzle that was Janet’s life. It’s a lifetime of experiences that goes so much deeper than accolades and headlines… an époque life that, as dancer and Tony Award winner Geoffry Holder said, “gave everybody hope.”
Let’s learn today the rest of her story that lead to the magic moment when Zachary Zolov told Metropolitan Opera Director, Sir Rudolph Bing,
“I have found my ballerina.”
Bing replied, “But what’s the problem?”
Bing simply asks, “But can she dance?”
The answer. “Yes! She’s magic!”
And the world of dance was changed forever. Let’s celebrate Janet’s accomplishments again today.
Janet Collins wins Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway, 1951
Janet Collins praised ‘for outstanding contributions as an artist to the cultural life of the United States and to the struggles of the Negro people and their artists for full equality and freedom’ .
-- Committee for the Negro in the Arts
It took no more, and probably less, than eight measures of movement in the opening dance to establish her claim to dance distinction...She could, and probably would stop a Broadway show in its tracks.
-- Walter Terry, New York Herald Tribune
Janet Collins earns more print space than the production's theatrical leads.. -- SOURCE
Janet Collins dances with something of the speed of light, seeming to touch the floor only occasionally with affectionate feet, caressing it as if she loved it and, loving, wanted to calm any fears it might have that in her flight she would leave it and never come back.
-- Arthur Pollack, The Daily Compass
I mean we clapped, we shouted, we stamped our feet. -- SOURCE