Interview with Yaël Lewin

By Nathan Heller

Yaël Tamar Lewin graduated from Barnard College as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1991, where she studied dance and began laying the foundation for what would later become Night’s Dancer, The Life of Janet Collins (Wesleyan, 2011). Lewin is herself an accomplished dance performer, having performed with several companies, including her own.

Janet Collins (1917-2003) was a successful choreographer and teacher, but is perhaps best known for being the first African-American woman to be hired as a full-time ballet dancer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Though she was a groundbreaking choreographer and performer, much of her work goes unnoticed in contemporary dance studies because of the constraints placed on black performers during her lifetime. Collins found the will to survive and thrive in an often hostile industry, transforming the way black dancers were perceived by the public.

In the writing of her book, Lewin collaborated with Collins from 1997 until her passing in 2003, and indeed much of the dancer’s personal memoirs are present in the pages of Night’s Dancer. The biography is an impeccably woven tale of triumph against all odds, drawn from extensive research and personal interviews with those closest to the silent dance revolutionary.

After the publication of Night’s Dancer in Fall 2011, Lewin received the 2012 Marfield Prize, the National Award for Arts Writing from the Arts Club of Washington. She lives and writes in New York.

Before we begin, please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first became acquainted with Janet Collins. 

LEWIN: Surely—I am a multitasker (writer, editor, dancer, and choreographer). But since my book launched, I’ve been feeling mostly like a dance history octopus! You can praise and blame my background for all of this—I hold degrees in dance and English (Barnard College and Columbia University). These were instrumental in creating Night’s Dancer—in fact, the book began as an undergraduate dance thesis. My astute senior seminar adviser, Barbara Palfy (also a Phi Beta Kappa member), asked what I was interested in, and since I grew up with both dance and opera (my mother is an opera coach), I told Barbara that I was interested in the connection between the two. She said, “What about Janet Collins?” I replied, “Who?” This led to the first incarnation of the material. Later, after graduate school, I drew on that thesis for the second incarnation, a Dance Magazine article, which I sent to Janet after its publication in 1997. Apparently, it pleased her, since she then had her brother call me to see if I would write the third incarnation—a fully fledged book. We collaborated on the project until she passed away in 2003.

What steps did you take to establish a connection with readers who are unfamiliar with ballet and dancing in general? 

LEWIN: This is a good question, since I did want the book to be accessible to a broad readership, including readers who are not informed about dance. For starters, I tried to shape Night’s Dancer as not just a dance book but, rather, as the story of a remarkable person. For me, it bears witness to the human condition, and so I think that it is possible to appreciate the book on that level, even without knowledge of the dance world. Many people can relate to Janet’s triumphs and travails even though they may never have put on a pair of pointe shoes. Along with this, I tried to provide historical context that would allow readers to relate the dance material to something perhaps more familiar to them. In addition, I tried to write in a style that would not be too academic. Many books that require in-depth research and scholarship, as this one did, can easily get bogged down in baffling jargon.

How did you reconcile Collins’ voice with your own in weaving her unfinished memoirs into your biography?

LEWIN: The reconciliation was—no dance pun intended—a leap of faith in the creative process. Some quick background on the situation—Janet had begun to write the book on her own before her health declined, and so left me with a wealth of autobiographical material. As it only covered her early years and needed light editing and chronological amendments, her manuscript could not stand alone as a book. Yet I felt that Janet’s voice was extremely compelling, and that her firsthand perspective contained historical importance. So I determined to preserve as much of it as possible, realizing that I had to think outside the box to make it happen. And I took courage from a similar case, a book on the dance matriarch Doris Humphrey.

As a result, the first two chapters of Night’s Dancer comprise most of Janet’s unfinished memoirs, and then the rest of the book is biography. Such a format is unusual, but it means that readers get to have their dance history cake and eat it, too—benefiting from both Janet’s storytelling and my research. To enhance this format’s accessibility, I named the autobiographical section “Act I” and the biographical section “Act II,” and between the two, I inserted an “Intermission” section. It explains to readers that there will now be a shift in voice, and adds some historical context for the autobiographical chapters that Janet did not provide in her own writing.

Your research into Collins’ life has described as assiduous and scholarly. How did you arrange your collaboration with Collins, and did you have to reassess your work after her death in 2003?

LEWIN: During the years I worked with Janet on the book, we did not live close by, so it was largely a long-distance relationship. We corresponded by old-fashioned mail (she wrote beautiful, articulate, and sometimes very funny letters) and spoke at length on the telephone. The most intensive part of our interviews together took place during a four-day visit to her in Fort Worth, Texas—this was a treat. What a big difference between hearing someone’s voice on paper or over the phone and actually seeing the person—their body language alone brings them into the third dimension! Every gesture and smile helped transform Janet from a mere historical subject into a fascinating human being.

Of course, after her passing in 2003, I appreciated even more the time we had spent together, and would review in my mind’s eye how she looked when she made certain remarks; when I read her letters, I could hear the distinctive tones and nuances of her voice echoing in my ears. I certainly had to reassess the project, since now my subject wasn’t around to answer questions, and a huge amount of research lay before me. Yet I was able to continue it with the comfort of having known Janet in her final years, which enriched the project significantly—it would have been a less well-rounded book if we had not crossed paths. I had been granted the opportunity to contribute to Night’s Dancer not just scholarship, but my own experience of my subject as well, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

John O. Perpener III states that Night Dancer “continues to correct the absence of historical writing on African Americans in ballet and modern dance.” What was your initial motivation for pursuing this subject matter, and do you feel that Perpener’s statement is accurate?>

LEWIN: My initial focus on Janet’s life stemmed from my interest in the connection between dance and opera, not specifically from an interest in African-American cultural studies. Yet I became immediately fascinated by that subject matter and the corresponding urgency to provide additional documentation in the field. It was apparent almost from the beginning of my project that a tremendous amount of original research would be necessary for Night’s Dancer, since fairly little exists in print about the history and predicament of black dancers in ballet. And John Perpener does speak from experience—his own book, African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, is a wonderful rarity, and I am grateful to him and the other scholars in the field for illuminating a special area that is still unknown and frequently misunderstood.

Finally, I would like to know how you feel about the value of a liberal arts education in the 21st century. As the world increasingly turns towards sciences and technology─the fastest growing job sectors─where do the liberal arts fit in? Can they ever be considered “cutting edge” in the same way?

LEWIN: The value of a liberal arts education is immeasurable in any century. Simply put, I think that the more well rounded an education students receive, the more well rounded in life they become. And, yes, a liberal arts education feels especially necessary in the 21st century, where sciences and technology continue to drive civilization forward.

It can’t be denied, though, that the liberal arts and technology do successfully go hand in hand—cyberspace has enabled a phenomenal amount of educational outreach and possibilities. For example, go to the websites of the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre, or other such institutions, and see how much amazing art and art history can be savored without visiting those locations in person. Thanks to these partnerships between the humanities and the sciences, the 21st century is allowing the liberal arts to be more accessible than ever. For me, that’s a big step on the road to “cutting edge.” Even to “really cool.”

Nathan Heller is a senior at the University of San Diego majoring in English. The University of San Diego is home to the Phi of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.