Dancer Janet Reed was born in Tolo, Oregon, a town with a population of fifteen families. She began performing with the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1937. Although the fashion at that time was for Russian themes and styles, and ballet companies were featuring glamorous, European-looking ballerinas, San Francisco audiences were enchanted with Reed, a petite, red-haired, blue-eyed dancer who embodied the American girl next door. After her first big role as Swanhilda in Coppélia, Reed became the star of the Opera Ballet, and while with them danced the roles of Swanhilda, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and the Swan Queen Odile in the first American full-length production of Swan Lake. When she performed this role for the first time, “San Francisco ballet-goers fairly burst with pride.”1
In 1941, Reed went to New York to join the Dance Players, an experimental dance group focusing on American themes. Although Dance Players was financially unsuccessful and closed the following year, it was an artistic success that allowed Reed to try new styles and discover her love for modern ballet. After the closing of the Dance Players, Reed danced first with Ballet Theater and then with the New York City Ballet.
Reed’s first major success in New York City came in 1944 playing a passer-by picked up by a sailor in Ballet Theater’s production of Fancy Free. The ballet featured music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins; John Martin declared it “a smash hit” in the April 19, 1944, New York Times. After the sensational opening numbers, “everyone on both sides of the footlights was aware that a success was being born—a most exhilarating experience in the theater.”2
While with Ballet Theater, Reed also danced in Pillar of Fire and On Stage with Nora Kaye, replaced Tatiana Riabouchinska in Graduation Ball, and danced the roles of Juno and, after Agnes de Mille, Venus in Antony Tudor’s ballet The Judgment of Paris. Van Vechten’s portrait of Reed shows her in her role as the wife in Agnes de Mille’s ballet Tally-Ho!, a comedy of the morals and manners of old Versailles. De Mille had originally danced the part herself, but John Martin found Reed’s interpretation to be more delicate, with a lighter touch and greater charm. In his essay “Choreography for Americans,” Van Vechten stated that Reed had brought “something both distinguished and lusty” to the role.3
In summing up the ballet season in the March 21, 1954, issue of the New York Times, Martin praised Reed as being “just about as complete a theater dancer as the ballet possesses.” Always popular with theater audiences, who found her “adorable,” Reed was an accomplished artist, with a comic gift, “the talents of a first-rate actress,” and the ability to make a role uniquely her own. “She has the ability to make you always believe her,” Martin wrote, “and this with a work of fantasy makes the difference between success and failure.”