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Obituaries

Janet Collins, 86; Broke Ballet Color Line

June 02, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Janet Collins, a prima ballerina who was the first black artist to become a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera, has died. She was 86.

A noted choreographer and one of the few black women to become prominent in American classical ballet, Collins died Wednesday at an assisted living facility in Fort Worth. The cause of death was not announced.

Collins broke a color barrier at the Met in New York City on Nov. 13, 1951, when she performed in a production of "Aida." Over the next few years, she had lead roles in Met productions of "Carmen," "La Gioconda" and "Samson and Delilah."

Collins arrived in New York City in 1949 and earned glowing reviews in a variety of performances, including the Broadway production of Cole Porter's musical "Out of This World." It was in that role that she was noticed by Zachary Solov, then the ballet master of the Met.

"She walked across the stage pulling a chiffon curtain, and it was electric," Solov recalled years later. "The body just spoke."

Born in New Orleans but raised in Los Angeles, Collins was 10 when she started taking private lessons at a Catholic Community Center. By the time she was 15, she had studied with some of the more noted teachers around and had earned an audition with Leonide Massine, the director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

But while Massine saw talent in Collins, he saw something else, too. He offered her a place in the company -- on the condition that she perform in white face to match the other dancers.

Collins turned him down. In tears on her way home, she vowed to perfect her art so race would not be an issue.

She pursued other areas of dance, performing in vaudeville shows and as the principal dancer for two major L.A. musical theater productions.

She continued her study of dance, worked with prominent teachers such as Katherine Dunham and appeared with Dunham's troupe in the 1943 film "Stormy Weather." She also appeared in the 1946 film "The Thrill of Brazil," which featured her in the "Rendezvous in Rio" macumba.

A turning point in her dance career came in November 1948, when she performed in a one-night program at the Las Palmas Theater in Los Angeles. She earned excellent notices.

A review in the Los Angeles Times noted: "Seldom indeed is anyone able to convey meaning and mood as does Miss Collins, for not only is her pantomime telling, her grace matchless, but she has the rare talent, even in her most stylized numbers, of reaching out to her audience and making them share emotions which her characters are portraying."

That performance led to an invitation to study in New York City.

Four months later her performance at the 92nd Street Y wowed New York critics, including a New York Herald Tribune reviewer who noted that "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 as easily as she could and will cause a concert-going audience to shout for encores."

After two more well-received performances in early 1949, Dance Magazine named her "the most outstanding debutante of the season."

Collins soon made it to Broadway, where she was cast in the solo role of Night in Porter's mythological spoof, "Out of This World."

Some months later, Solov saw her in that part and told Rudolf Bing, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, that he wanted to hire her.

While the Met had engaged black dancers previously in occasional specialty roles, Collins' hiring marked the first time a black artist had joined the permanent company.

Years later, when Bing was asked what he considered his greatest accomplishment at the Met, he responded, " ... I have to say I consider having broken the color barrier one of my most important contributions. I broke it twice: with dancer Janet Collins ... and singer Marian Anderson in 1955."

Despite her success in New York, Collins faced racism on the road. In some Southern cites, race laws kept her off the stage, and her parts were played by understudies. After a performance in Toronto, Dance Magazine reported some years ago, she and a colleague approached the door of an obviously crowded restaurant only to be turned away with the curt statement that the establishment was closed.

Collins stayed with the Metropolitan Opera company through 1954, after which she toured the United States and Canada in solo dance concerts.

She returned to teaching modern dance, which she had pursued with some success in the late 1940s.

Collins, who began exploring her talent as a choreographer in the mid-1940s, developed a diverse dance repertory over time. "Spirituals," which became a signature piece for her through much of the rest of her career, was choreographed in 1947.

Her last work to have its premiere in New York City was Canticle of the Elements, which the Alvin Ailey Dance Company performed in 1974 during a tribute to Collins' path-breaking career.

In failing health, she moved to Fort Worth from Seattle in 2000 to be closer to her brother, Ernest Patrick Collins, who survives her, as does her sister, Betty Wilkerson of Pasadena, Calif. Collins was married briefly but had no children.

A memorial service is scheduled for June 13 in Fort Worth.

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