Tracing a Shadow — Night's Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins
by Yaël Tamar Lewin and Janet Collins

Night's Dancer

Night's Dancer: The Life
of Janet Collins

BY Yaël Tamar Lewin
AND Janet Collins
(Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

From the Publisher:

Night’s Dancer 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’ story. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with Collins and her family, friends, and colleagues to explore Collins’ development as a dancer, choreographer, and painter, Lewin gives us a profoundly moving portrait of an artist of indomitable spirit.”

Born in New Orleans in 1917 to a lively, educated Creole African-American family, Janet Collins went on to become, in 1951, the first black artist to break the color line for full-time employment at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet — and broke it in a grand way, appearing as the company’s new prima ballerina. Universally acclaimed for her soulful, seemingly effortless dance, Collins was also a talented visual artist. But her life was far from charmed. She led a wave of such artists, including Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) and Arthur Mitchell (New York City Ballet), and brushed against many notable figures of twentieth-century dance and theater — Doris Humphreys, Mia Slavenska, Maya Deren, Judith Jamison, Lester Horton, Katherine Dunham, Agnes de Mille, Hanya Holm, George Balanchine, Cole Porter, Alvin Ailey, and others. Universally acclaimed for her soulful, seemingly effortless dance, Collins was also a talented visual artist. But her life was far from charmed. Aside from the daily discrimination of pre-Civil Rights America (which Collins always downplayed, even though she lost countless opportunities because of it), she suffered from deep depressions, during one of which, in 1940, she was sterilized while hospitalized, in accordance with California’s eugenic laws. Her peak was brilliant but brief. Later in life she taught dance and sought religion; she died in 2003.

But what can we really feel or know from these facts? Luckily, we have more than that: Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, by Yaël Tamar Lewin, begins with Collins’ own unfinished memoir, a fascinating document of the dancing mind. Here we have the young Collins, already a dancer, reacting to the world around her:

The palm trees — I remember these two towering palm trees in our front yard! They were so tall — I used to love watching their tops swaying in the wind… I will never forget opening my arms and dancing to their melody — I wanted to be swept by the wind like they were — to dance to the music of the wind!

— p. 7

Her romantic responsiveness is married to a practical interest in how movement works. Here she is observing her father, a tailor, sewing:

He would snap the needle through the cloth with the side of the finger — it made sense to me as I used to watch him sew for it gave the finger more leverage.

— pp. 9-10

Her desire to understand the body led her, while she was an art student, to ask for permission to observe dissections at the University of Southern California, which she does at first with pleasure and interest:

All of the bodies were covered with a white sheet. The doctor went to one body —and pulled back the sheet to the waist. It was a male torso with the head completely covered like a mummy. It was only a body — not a person to me… Across the lower part of the pectoral muscles (breastbone) a vertical line was cut. It formed a cross on the torso and, at the interception of the cross, all four points were folded back away from each other, exposing the beautiful muscular structure underneath… I saw tendons — and blood vessels — and even nerves. I was amazed — I thought nerves were simply mysterious electrical currents, which ran through the body unseen!

— p. 30

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