The blazing steps of Janet Collins

The paintbrush she once waved across the canvas of the stage has been humbled by her 82 years.

Arthritis has turned her fingers into lightning-bolt zigzags, and two years ago, after one toe folded like a crossed leg over its neighbor, she had it surgically removed. More recently, she fell and broke her hip. Then doctors told her she'd need cataract surgery, one for each eye, and sometimes, Janet Collins doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Her mind, though, remains limber, and she compiles her thoughts in tablets, like a girl collecting seashells on a beach.

She has mirthful eyes and bell-pepper cheeks, and her skin is caramel with a hint of raspberry. A fluffy white wig hides her smooth gray head. Back when she styled, she wore mink coats and fox furs - that's her, vamping under the hat and black coat, in Brian Lanker's 1989 book of portraits, "I Dream A World: Black Women Who Changed America."

Inside her high-rise, low-income apartment building she is just another senior citizen - no more, no less. It's not what you'd expect from a woman who made history as the New York Metropolitan Opera's first African-American prima ballerina.

Whatever happened to Janet Collins? Even in the dance world, whose attention she once held rapt, the answer is a mystery. Says Sandra Kurtz, a local dance teacher and writer: "It's embarrassing, but I think a lot of people think she's dead."

When The Washington Post recently profiled her more famous cousin, dancer Carmen de Lavallade, Janet Collins didn't even rate a mention - even though it was she who'd snapped the Metropolitan Opera's color barrier like the aged rubber band that it was. And she did it after being told the color of her skin was all wrong, not to mention her body's contours and capabilities.

That's how it was when you were black in the 1930s - primed for tap, no question about that, but ballet? No way. Your hips are too big. Your back? Not straight enough. And your legs won't turn the right way. That's what they'd tell you.

But Collins did it anyway, bursting onto the scene like a sun, brilliant and dominant.

February 1949: "There is no more exciting moment than that in which the theatergoer discovers for himself a great artist," wrote Walter Terry of the New York Herald Tribune. "Such a moment came to many last Sunday afternoon when Janet Collins made her New York debut . . ."

It was, said New York Times critic John Martin, "more than sufficient to indicate a rich talent and a striking theatrical personality at the beginning of a promising career."

Within two years, Janet Collins was named the best dancer on Broadway for her role in Cole Porter's "Out of This World," setting the stage for her history-making Metropolitan Opera debut. For three years she toured the country, doing solo concerts for general audiences. She was a star.

Before the decade was over, she had said goodbye to it all.

She has been in search of a loftier goal ever since, something more precious: herself. Her departure puzzled her peers, including the legendary Alvin Ailey.

Now, every Sunday, she summons the will that once pulled her to the barre each morning and goes to church. God is her toughest instructor. She tells herself: Janet, get out of the way. Let Him work. Poor as a church mouse, rich with the excitement of a continuing journey, she's an evolving, unfinished work, waiting to see what life has in store for her.

"You're a different person every day," she says. "Each day I discover I don't know completely who I am."

`We had to overcome arrogance'

Janet Collins was born in New Orleans on March 2, 1917, the daughter of mixed-race parents - a tailor and a dressmaker - whose background was a jambalaya of black, French, Jewish, Scottish and Irish influences.

Four years later, the family moved to Los Angeles. In return for the uniforms her mother sewed for school performances, she received her first dance lessons.

At age 15, she auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and then-choreographer Leonide Massine. The young ballerinas applauded the only black face among them when she was done. Massine was impressed, too. But if she were going to join the company, he told her, he'd have to paint her in whiteface. She went out onto the steps and cried.

Overcoming barriers wasn't going to be easy. But her parents had taught their son and five daughters that life was a blank canvas, with the world's colors at their disposal.

"We didn't consider ourselves black," Collins says. "We were well-aware of how black people were treated, but we didn't bow to that treatment. We didn't have to overcome inferiority. We had to overcome arrogance."

Eventually, she majored in art at Los Angeles' Art Center School. Forced to pick between dancing and painting, she opted to make the most of her youthful agility. But after her experience with Massine, she knew that if she were going to develop her talent, she would have to go it alone.

With her sights set on being a soloist, ballet wouldn't suffice, anyway. She had to have a range capable of keeping an audience spellbound for 90 minutes.

She studied under renowned ballerinas Carmelita Maracci and Mia Slavenska and modern dance pioneer Lester Horton, whose multiracial dance troupe broke ground of its own in the 1950s. She incorporated modern dance into her emerging repertoire, proudly developing a versatility that, while commonplace now, was years before its time.

As part of Katherine Dunham's landmark modern dance company, she appeared in the 1943 Hollywood musical "Stormy Weather," upstaging the troupe's star dancer during the dreamy title sequence by stealing away the camera's eye for a close-up.

A fellowship allowed her to develop her own material. Her first concert, in 1948 at Los Angeles' Las Palmas Theatre, for which she also designed the costumes, drew rave reviews but not the prestige she'd hoped. Something was missing: the stamp of the nation's most respected critics.

She realized: She could not reach the top until she went to New York.

New York: a smashing debut

Her voice is melodic and even, like surf washing against a beach. As she reflects, a thought or comment strikes her just right, prompting hearty, infectious laughter.

At center stage are an easel and stool, both neglected in recent months. But it was painting that paved her way a half-century ago in Los Angeles: With $500 pocketed from sold portraits, she packed her bags and headed to New York.

She thinks back now, to the night she faced New York's critics for the first time at the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association, a popular debut venue. At 31, she had honed her style in determined isolation, but now her nerves fluttered as she stepped into the cascading lights, the audience like a wide, open mouth waiting to swallow her whole.

The performer in her took over, and she immersed herself in her set, a Mozart rondo and two Negro spirituals, pieces with contrasting techniques. When it was done, a 1997 Dance magazine profile noted, the critics uncharacteristically burst into applause. They shouted. They stamped their feet.

Years later, the scrapbook reviews can still make her cry.

John Martin of The New York Times - "the master," she proclaims - knowledgeably codified her style as "basically eclectic," saying: "Its direction is modern, its technical foundation chiefly ballet. The fusing element is a markedly personal approach which will undoubtedly come sooner or later into complete control of all the divergent influences and emerge as a style of its own."

Some stars are apparent because they shine so bright; others, like Janet Collins, because they shine in ways we've never seen. Collins had the ability to transform her body into whatever she chose to portray. As one of her dance partners, Loren Hightower, once said: "You could show Janet a movement, and immediately it became something nobody else could do. . . . It was as if (she) looked inward, and a strange power that she had seemed to come from there."

When choreographer Zachary Solov needed a young dancer to play an Ethiopian captive in the twirling, triumphal march of "Aida," he mentioned Collins to Rudolf Bing, the Metropolitan Opera's newly hired general manager.

Solov told him: She's black. Bing asked merely if she was good, then told Solov to hire her.

"And the color line was broken," Collins says. "It happened so simply."

The reviews were divine. Said Martin, singling out her role: "Miss Collins, of course, is magnificent - beautiful of body, technically superb and every sense a dancer."

Also among those who saw Collins perform was Francia Russell, now artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Just 12 at the time, she says that since ballet in opera is often an afterthought, the fact that Collins made an impression is remarkable.

"She was a big personality onstage," Russell says. "And there are never very many of those."

"She looked better than Janet Jackson," says friend Kabby Mitchell, a former PNB star who now teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. "She had beautiful abdominals, guys throwing her in the air. She was just beautiful."

Before they met, Mitchell had considered Collins a role model. "She was fascinating to me because as a young kid I didn't think of black people being in ballet," says Mitchell, himself African American.

Despite her success, Collins wasn't happy behind the scenes. She found the dance world full of bickering and clawing. Managers exploited her: "They'd send me away on tours and I'd come back owing them money."

A trip to Trinidad was the turning point. A priest asked her: "Do you know who the great miracles appear to? The lowly. Do you know why? God has less layers to go through." The thought shakes loose another scratchy, hearty laugh. She says: "It was like he turned on a light in my mind. . . . Suddenly, I found a peace. . . . I've been on this tear ever since."

She left the lights of the stage. (She was replaced in the Metropolitan Opera by Carmen de Lavallade, her cousin, and de Lavallade's husband, Geoffrey Holder, one of the most handsome couples in American dance.)

The move caught her peers by surprise. Alvin Ailey, with whose company she clashed when it premiered her "Canticle of the Elements" in the 1970s, wrote in "Revelations," his autobiography: "She was a fantastic artist. . . . But she had psychological problems that later drove her to extremes and out of the dance world."

Collins had turned her efforts to teaching, like many dancers finally do. "I took the gift God gave me and turned it into some way of serving," she says. "I wasn't just running away and hiding my head in a hole."

Collins found Ailey's comment hurtful, but she shrugs off others' efforts to find reason in what she does. "Logic doesn't come first," she says. "Love comes first. It's the greatest thing in life."

Isolation - and devotion

For 40 years, Collins has lived a nun's life, staunchly isolated and devoted to the divine, as willful as John the Baptist surviving on locusts and honey while preparing the way for someone greater than himself. In 1979, she retired to Seattle to focus on the religious art inspired by her search for higher meaning.

Finding a center, a balance - that's what it's all about, isn't it? In dance, if your leg extends one way, your arm goes the other - a concert of motion spindled around the center of the body itself. Destroy the balance, and you fall.

Janet Collins fell.

After she lost her toe in 1998, she grew short-tempered. She could do nothing but lie in bed. As each physical ailment limited her artistry, she grew withdrawn and lonely. Her mind raced with vivid imagery, radiant with joy, gloomy with misery.

She checked into the hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a chemical imbalance. Now it made sense, why friends would tell her: "Janet, you're the only person I know who can go from laughter to tears."

"Your dreams are like this," she explains, spreading her arms. "Then, when you realize you can't do them, you become depressed."

She moved to a West Seattle nursing home, an eagle with a broken wing. Lying in bed, she read and was saved by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She quotes the crucial passage: " `Superiority to fate is difficult to learn/Not given or conferred/But possible to earn.' "

"I think all artists are bipolar," Collins says. "You have to go through the whole spectrum of emotions. You're given that depth. If you don't feel sorrows, you can't feel the heights of joy."

God, she says, placed her in that home for a reason: To learn humility. Now back home, she takes her medicines religiously.

Her living room is monastically dark and bare, as organized as a pillbox. Simplicity reigns right down to her wristwatch, black numbers against a white background.

She never completely abandoned dance, and she spent the 1960s and early 1970s teaching all over the country, occasionally producing a new work. In Seattle, she has dropped in at PNB dance rehearsals, but for most of the dance world, she has dropped off the face of the earth.

Dance is still within her, but the body says no. Instead, her emotions pour onto paper: Her early artworks are tai chi swoops of crayon - Bible tales told in slinky ovals and sharp angles. The New Testament writhes and leaps off the pages, unfurling an angry crescendo of red into Jesus' crucifixion, followed by the calm yellow and pale blue of resurrection.

Then, her masterpiece, the one she showcased at a senior art show in November: Four faces of Jesus in the shape of a cross, underscored by the 12 apostles in a spectrum of changing color and emotion.

Her body goes one way and her being goes another. Every Sunday, she grips her walker for balance and makes the weekly trek to St. James Cathedral, where she is seated front and center, best ticket in the house.

This is the script and the theater that now dominate her life.

In 1995, she briefly emerged from obscurity to serve as keynote speaker at the Eighth International Conference of Blacks in Dance in Philadelphia. Says friend Kabby Mitchell: "She asked me to be her escort, and that was an honor. . . . You would have thought Queen Elizabeth had come in. People flew in to meet Janet Collins, just because they wanted to be in her presence. They took pictures with her. A lot of people thought she was dead. I think for a moment she thought she had died and gone to heaven."

Dance today, Collins says, is all about physical prowess, designed to excite the eye. But once you leave the theater, she says, you're left with nothing. While she had physical prowess, she says, that's not what made her. What made her was spirit. "I still have that," she says. "I'll always have that."

She was a comet, flashing across the sky of the stage. Then gone. Out of this world, the way a star should be.

Marc Ramirez's phone message number is 206-464-8102. His e-mail address is