What does it mean for a contemporary scholar to be trusted with the unfinished autobiography of a dance legend? How does one ensure that the integrity of their research matches the depth of life experience embodied in their subject's narrative? Who is best served by the sharing of the untold stories of those whose narratives have been historically marginalized? And what does it mean for today's dancers to learn about those who have paved the way for them under harsh and unjust circumstances? These were the questions I had in mind when I was lucky enough to interview historian and dancer Yael Tamar Lewin, author of Night's Dancer, The Life of Janet Collins (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), a soaring work that includes Ms. Collin's unfinished autobiography.
Born in 1917, Janet Collins was raised in Los Angeles and has the historic distinction of being the first African - American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. A dancer with demonstrable skill in both ballet and modern dance vocabularies, Janet's career included performances on television, in film and on Broadway. Despite her triumphs as an artist, Ms. Collins faced intense racial bias throughout her career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. An accomplished painter and deeply spiritual person, Janet's story is tenderly and meticulously recounted in both her own words and through Ms. Lewin's wonderful research. The book stands as a testament to any dancer today wishing to fulfill their artistic potential in a world that can be unwelcoming and cold. Notably, Yael's research on Collins began during her own undergraduate studies and took shape over several years during which a trusting relationship budded between subject and author. This model of scholarship and the resulting work shares lessons on how to handle the narrative of a beloved artist with care. Yael Tamar Lewin is a writer, editor, choreographer, and alternative medicine practitioner. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Barnard College and Columbia University, and has performed with several dance companies, including her own. She lives in New York.