“It is opening night at the Metropolitan Opera—the gala performance of Giuseppe Verdi’sAida. It is the first time in the history of the venerable opera house that it has a black artist on its roster. Let me tell you, my friend, I am just as surprised as anyone else.” It was 1951, and Janet Collins, the author of these words, was that black artist, to this day the first and only full-time African-American prima ballerina ever hired by the Met. Her talent always set her apart in the world of ballet. So did her skin color.
Born in New Orleans in 1917, Collins relocated with her family to Los Angeles in 1921, her parents assuming that the West would afford African Americans opportunities that the Deep South could not. But discrimination wasn’t regional, and ballet, even for beginners, was a whites-only endeavor, with dance schools denying admission to students of color. At 15, Collins received good news that soured quickly: She was accepted into the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, on one devastating condition: that she paint and powder her black skin white. She refused. “I thought talent mattered, not color,” she recalled.
A trained painter, Collins was a Works Progress Administration artist during the 1930s. Yet she continued to dance, an arresting figure on the Los Angeles stage and screen throughout the ’40s. “Her grace matchless,” wrote a critic, she approached any style—modern, vaudeville, Latin—with mastery.
She danced in the companies of the white innovator Lester Horton and the groundbreaking African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham, known for her African, Caribbean and classical pastiches. Collins’ own work, for which she created the choreography and costumes, incorporated influences from sources as diverse as Creole rhythms, Negro spirituals and Mozart.
In 1949 the 32-year-old Collins headed east to New York. She was a sensation with white critics, winning the Donaldson Award (essentially the forerunner to the Tonys) for Best Dancer for her first starring role on Broadway, in Cole Porter’s 1950 musical Out of This World. Black critics were equally taken with her, and the Committee for the Negro in the Arts honored her “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.”
For a time it seemed that Collins’ struggle had abated. A New York critic wrote: “She could, and probably would, stop a Broadway show in its tracks.” She certainly stopped Zachary Solov, the Metropolitan Opera’s choreographer, in his. Following Collins’ historic hiring in 1951, she had a three-year run at the Met, Aida followed by Carmen and La Gioconda in 1952 and Samson and Delilahin 1953.
The Met was good to her. Her dressing room was on the same floor as the other stars’—a show of equality not typical of the time. But tours were plagued by racism, and sometimes she stayed behind entirely. In the South, dining and lodging facilities were segregated, and Collins’ parts went to understudies because black and white performers couldn’t share a stage. Explaining in later years that she was “not spiritually fulfilled on the stage,” Collins resigned in 1954. (In 1963 Dunham followed in the footsteps of her former dancer, becoming the first African American to choreograph at the Met, with a new version of Aida.)
After her retirement, Collins made significant contributions to deaf education, pioneering methods of teaching dance to deaf students in the Bronx. She continued to choreograph and tour on her own until the early ’70s, ultimately abandoning the stage for painting. She died in 2003.
Janet Collins recognized the uniqueness of her role in 20th-century dance history. In ballet, she said, “There were no African-American dancers when I was growing up.” With few exceptions, the same is true today. Indeed, the image of the ballerina has changed little since Collins transcended the Met’s color line.
“Picture a ballerina in a tutu and toe shoes. What does she look like? Most would say she is a fragile-limbed pixie with flaxen hair and ivory skin. … Ballet isn’t just about ability or strength. You must also look the part.” These words sound like a continuation of Collins’ opening quote, but they aren’t. They came from the pen of Misty Copeland, a history-making ballerina herself, only the third African-American female soloist for the revered American Ballet Theatre, and its first in 20 years. Copeland wrote this in 2014, exactly 60 years after Collins’ retirement.
Though decades apart, Collins and Copeland both remain anomalies in the world they captivated, in the world that captivated them.