Memories of Janet Collins

(Many thanks to Judith Judson for sharing her recollections of Janet Collins.)

I am perhaps one of the few left who saw Janet Collins dance. I am intensely grateful for those experiences. The first was when I was fifteen. I saw Ms. Collins’ Broadway debut, as Night in the Cole Porter musical Out of This World. Having seen no other musical, I had no way to judge this show, and found it very amusing, but most notable for two performers, the veteran comedienne and eccentric dancer Charlotte Greenwood and Janet Collins as Night. I was entranced by both of them. Greenwood stayed green in my memory not only for her skills but as an experience shared by my mother, who told me she had seen that famous performer in the first musical she had ever seen, Linger Longer Letty—when that dancer and my mother had both been greener in years!

But it was Collins who stayed in my memory for that unique quality with which she stunned those who saw her in her all too brief career. It was a year after I saw her on Broadway that she caused an artistic and cultural sensation as ballerina at the Met Opera. During that year she also had opportunities to concertize and came to Washington DC to perform. The venue was Cardozo High School, a black high school which I had attended the year before when it was Central High—a white school. I had a friend at the Met Opera school, later in the corps de ballet of the company, and to him I sent a review of what I had seen and delighted in. Would I had seen her more—but those those precious two occasions were almost burnt into my brain. I cannot tell you exactly what moves she made, it has been seventy years. I was enthralled, electrified. Although two years later I was myself a student at the Met, I never saw her perform there. I could not afford opera tickets, and working full time as well as taking class I had no opportunity to super, since I could not take time off to rehearse. So despite being often in the same building I only saw her once more in passing at the school.

Those two memories of her dancing are, however, still cherished. Those who did see her more extensively or in different roles probably remember her as I did—not as the Queen of the Night in Ponchielli’s opera—a role I did not see, but more like a dazzling comet or meteor streaking across that night: an incandescent but evanescent phenomenon, to be gasped at and forever after longed for. There are lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay describing seeing such phenomena—of splendid planets “which may appear and purely blaze, and are at once withdrawn/What time the watcher in desire and fear,/ leans from his chilly window in the dawn.” The poem concludes that those planets (she is describing the eyes of her beloved) are “more fiercely bright than all the Alphas of the actual night.” Such are the memories of those fortunate to have seen Janet Collins. Thus did this “queen of the night” impress both viewers and reviewers when she burst upon the New York scene. It is regrettable both for the gifted artist herself and for her putative audiences that more was not granted. Ms. Lewin’s memoir and a few blurry bits of film, many photos, recollections like mine—are all that we have of this great artist. Not enough—but for dance lovers, what is enough?

About Judith Judson

Judith Judson began ballet lessons at the advanced age of fourteen, but studied most of her life under distinguished masters, including Edward Caton, Igor Schwezoff, Alfredo Corvino and Antony Tudor. Although her first training was in the pre-Vaganova Russian school, she gravitated to the Cecchetti Method and is a Licentiate in that method. She taught ballet for many years in the Washington DC area, wrote on dance for the Washington Post, was a critic for Pointe Magazine and has written book reviews for the NDEO Journal. She has an MA in dance history from American University.