Commentary Magazine


Lincoln Kirstein's Achievement

Eleven years after his death, Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), is largely forgotten. Even during his lifetime, he was little known outside a smallish circle of art-conscious Americans. Throughout the second half of his long life, he labored in the shadow of George Balanchine, NYCB’s star choreographer, and many people who cared passionately about dance in America had no more than a general idea of the key role he played in the company’s creation. As for his other achievements, they are still less well remembered today, despite the fact that he was also at one time a much-admired critic and connoisseur of the visual arts.

Should Kirstein be better remembered? Or was he only a minor figure in the history of American modernism whose posthumous obscurity is deserved? Such questions could be resolved by a biography that put its subject in historical perspective. Unfortunately, Martin Duberman’s newly published The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, for all its daunting length and admirable earnestness, does little to explain Kirstein’s significance, and those who come to it without already knowing a good deal about him are likely to find the book exceedingly tough going.1

Part of the problem is that Duberman is not a naturally gifted biographer. Though his prose style is direct and vigorous, he has no talent for literary portraiture, and so none of the secondary characters in The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein—not even Balanchine, by far the most consequential figure in Kirstein’s professional life—emerges clearly as a personality. Kirstein, by contrast, is presented very clearly indeed, but that is mostly because Duberman was given access to his private papers, including his surviving correspondence and diaries. From these he has quoted extensively but unselectively, moving from event to event without giving the reader any sense of the relative importance of the occurrences he chronicles. The results read at times more like a heavily annotated journal than a biography.

Moreover, Duberman has written about Kirstein from a constrictingly narrow point of view. An academic historian and sometime playwright whose main scholarly interests are the anti-slavery movement in antebellum America and the history of homosexuality, he is best known as the author of a highly politicized 1989 biography of Paul Robeson.2 Not surprisingly, then, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein has much to say about its subject’s political views (such as they were) and his bisexuality. Yet, for the biographer of a man who was nothing if not an aesthete, there is little in Duberman’s resumé to indicate that he has the necessary knowledge of or interest in the world of art.

Why does this matter? Because there is no point in writing a full-length book about Kirstein that does not place him within the context of American modernism. His role in the founding of the New York City Ballet has already been adequately covered in the literature on Balanchine and NYCB, while his private life, complicated though it was, does not bear recounting at such enervating length. What makes Kirstein interesting in retrospect is not so much what he did as what he stood for—and The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein fails adequately to explain just what that was.

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Kirstein was born in 1907 in Rochester, New York, but his family moved to Boston when he was four. Louis, his father, was a non-observant Jew who had married into the clothing business, then became a partner in Filene’s, a successful Boston department store, thus making it possible for him to send his second son to Exeter and Harvard. Artistically inclined from childhood onward, Kirstein had no creative talent, but he did have a love of the arts, a knack for organization, and a father with more than enough money to underwrite his son’s activities.

In 1927, a year after he arrived at Harvard, Kirstein co-founded and became the editor of a “little magazine” called Hound & Horn. The magazine, bankrolled by his father and modeled after T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, appeared regularly until 1934, publishing such writers as James Agee, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams, and Edmund Wilson. In the process it became one of the most influential literary publications of its kind. From the beginning, moreover, it had a decided American tilt, a preference that Kirstein retained throughout his life. “We will try to be the one standard of excellence in young American letters and the more American the better as far as I am concerned,” he told his father.

Kirstein was as interested in the visual as in the literary arts. In 1929, he became one of the founders of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which exhibited the work of a long list of artists who were still largely unknown in Boston.3 Like Hound & Horn, the Harvard Society played a key role in the introduction of modern art to America. Several of its shows were later seen at the then-new Museum of Modern Art in New York and at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, whose director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, was another Harvard alumnus dedicated to bringing modernism to the United States.

Kirstein’s relationship to modern art, however, was both equivocal and idiosyncratic. Not only was he insensitive to music, but he would always be uncomfortable with abstraction in all its manifestations:

Digital mastery and the accurate placement of the human face and form, supremacy in surface and texture, the seizure of exact retinal resemblance, were fixtures in my developing preferences. . . . I could never credit abstraction as anything past an admission of failed skill.

Then and later, the art form that interested Kirstein most was ballet, to which he declared himself “deeply addicted” as early as 1927. At that time, there was next to no ballet to be seen in America, and it was in Europe that he first encountered Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. This became his touchstone of excellence.

Among ballet companies of the 20’s, the Ballets Russes was unique in its commitment to modernism, presenting a long series of new works with décor designed by artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Rouault and set to scores commissioned from the likes of Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, and—above all—Igor Stravinsky. But it was Diaghilev, the company’s artistic director, who devised these collaborative ventures and closely supervised their execution, even though he himself lacked any creative gifts of his own.

Kirstein responded with unusual critical discernment. In 1930, the year after Diaghilev’s death, he published an essay in Hound & Horn called “The Diaghilev Period,” his first important piece of writing about dance. He displayed considerable acuteness about the Russian impresario and his achievements:

His inherent gifts of taste, his consciousness of the chic, his appreciation of social snobbery, and his passion for the beauty of surprise and of youth—these in a combination of brilliant energies and practical qualifications made him the isolated genius that he was.

Even more interestingly, Kirstein singled out for favorable mention George Balanchine, the Ballets Russes’ last choreographer, whose dances had (in Kirstein’s words) “the spareness, the lack of decoration which is by no means a lack of refinement.” He went on to suggest that the young Russian was pointing the way to “a revivified, purer, cleaner classicism.” Kirstein was the first critic in America—and one of the first anywhere—to recognize that Balanchine was a major talent in the making, and that central to his significance was his commitment to classicism.

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Being the editor of a magazine, even an influential one, was not enough to absorb Kirstein’s increasingly manic energies.4 Above all, he wanted to be an artist in his own right, and he poured his passions into an autobiographical novel called Flesh Is Heir (1932). But he would never become more than a talented amateur—revealingly, Duberman discusses Flesh Is Heir at length without once quoting from it—and he was an astute enough critic to realize that he would have to find another outlet for his strong but inchoate instincts.

By this time, Kirstein’s consuming interest in dance had impelled him to study briefly with the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine (though he was too tall and clumsy ever to be a dancer) and to consider the possibility of starting a dance company.5 Then, in 1933, he met Balanchine, who at that time was leading a short-lived Paris-based troupe called Les Ballets 1933. Kirstein was so overwhelmed by their encounter that he promptly fired off a sixteen-page handwritten letter to Chick Austin proposing that the Wadsworth Atheneum launch a ballet company and school jointly run by Balanchine and himself. The goal, he explained, would be to train an ensemble of young American dancers who could then perform American-themed ballets choreographed by Balanchine to Kirstein’s specifications (two he described in his letter were Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Custer’s Last Stand).

Even at this embryonic stage, Kirstein’s vision was grandiose: “This school can be the basis of a national culture as intense as the great Russian renaissance of Diaghilev. . . . It will mean a life work to all of us, incredible power in a few years.” Also clear from the letter is that he saw himself not merely as an impresario but as an American Diaghilev, one whose imaginative visions Balanchine would bring to life. It seems never to have occurred to Kirstein that the strong-willed Balanchine might have ideas of his own about the nature of their prospective collaboration.

Most museum directors of the 30’s would have dismissed Kirstein’s letter as an impractical fantasy. But Austin was an equally idealistic visionary—he was already making plans to present the premiere of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts in the Atheneum’s newly built theater—and he agreed to cooperate. In the end, the museum’s facilities proved inadequate, but by then Kirstein had already brought Balanchine to New York. There the two men started the School of American Ballet and put together a performing ensemble that was briefly engaged by the Metropolitan Opera to serve as its resident ballet company. Closing down Hound & Horn in 1934, Kirstein persuaded his father to support his latest venture and spent the next few years trying to get the American Ballet off the ground.

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It soon became apparent that while Balanchine was broadly sympathetic to Kirstein’s desire for a specifically American style of ballet, he meant to create it on his own terms. Neither then nor later would he allow Kirstein to play Diaghilev: all Balanchine needed from the younger man was his energy, his organizational skills, and his money.

“I began to sense that somehow I was now fatally aligned with a commanding historical process,” Kirstein would recall late in life. Throughout the 30’s and early 40’s, he made several attempts to establish a creative identity independent from that of his partner. (“Same split as usual,” he wrote in a 1934 diary entry: “do I want to do something myself, i.e., write, paint—or collaborate?”) But these creative endeavors came to nothing.

Thanks in large part to his near-complete unresponsiveness to abstraction, he also lost much of his feel for artistic excellence in arts other than dance. While some of his art criticism proved to be strikingly prescient—he was, for instance, among the very first critics to praise the work of the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans and the sculptor Elie Nadelman—his taste, like that of so many passionate amateurs, was erratic. Thus, he espoused such minor neo-romantic modernists as Paul Cadmus and Pavel Tchelitchev at the expense of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, whom he dismissed as practitioners of “an amusement manipulated by interior decorators and high-pressure salesmen.” He soon came to be seen as an eccentric, even a reactionary, and never again would he exert the influence on the world of art that he had during his youthful tenure as the editor of Hound & Horn.

In dance, by contrast, Kirstein’s touch remained sure. In the mid-30’s, while Balanchine was spending most of his time working on Broadway and in Hollywood, he organized a touring troupe called Ballet Caravan whose members were mostly drawn from the ranks of the now-moribund American Ballet. For the first time, he held full sway over the artistic policy of a company. Accordingly, its repertory included such Kirstein-devised ballets on American themes as Billy the Kid (1938, choreography by Eugene Loring, music by Aaron Copland) and Filling Station (1938, choreography by Lew Christiansen, music by Virgil Thomson). But American audiences were not yet ready for a company that turned its back on the popular Franco-Russian style of classical dance, and Ballet Caravan folded after three seasons.

In any case, Kirstein would never be fully comfortable operating independently of Balanchine, no doubt because he recognized, however reluctantly, his own limitations. As Duberman puts it:

[He] had yearned to become his own master, yet apparently still hankered to remain at Balanchine’s side, serving his needs and being at least a junior partner in the work at hand.

Not until after World War II would the two men succeed in bringing a company to durable life. When they did, however, the results were momentous. In 1946, they organized an ad-hoc troupe called Ballet Society that became, two years later, the resident company of New York’s City Center. The New York City Ballet (as the group was renamed in 1948) evolved over time into the most significant and influential ballet company in America. Until his death in 1996, Kirstein worked tirelessly and successfully to keep NYCB and the School of American Ballet afloat, and it was in large part through his efforts that Balanchine, long unknown to the public at large, came to be widely recognized as the foremost choreographer of the 20th century.

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Balanchine rarely allowed Kirstein to play anything other than an administrative role in NYCB’s operations. The younger man’s dreams of becoming an American Diaghilev thus remained unrealized, just as his inability to come to terms with the rise of abstraction caused him to be relegated to the sidelines of the art world, and his later writings on dance and other subjects went largely unread.6

Why did Kirstein dedicate himself so selflessly to a man who by many accounts treated him with a brusqueness bordering on contempt? Partly because he understood that Balanchine was a genius —but also because he realized very early on that Balanchine’s unswerving commitment to the classical ballet tradition was the key to giving dance a stable and secure institutional life in a country that had hitherto been indifferent to its existence. At a time when dance in America was dominated by a myriad of modern dialects, Kirstein saw that the universal language of ballet could serve as a basis for a characteristically American idiom—and that it was sufficiently systematized to be taught, thus allowing ballet companies to survive their founders and transmit a permanent repertory of masterworks from generation to generation.

It was on this solid foundation of cultural tradition, the importance of which Kirstein had absorbed as a young man from his immersion in the tradition-conscious modernism of 20th-century writers like T.S. Eliot, that American ballet would be built. “Just as the civic symphonic orchestras of America are among the most brilliant in the world,” he wrote in an essay published at the time of the American Ballet’s New York debut, “so does America offer the world the possibility of a great ballet.” In 1934, such an ambition was all but impossible to take seriously, and no one but Kirstein and Balanchine regarded it as anything other than a dream. Today, America is home to a half-dozen companies organized and led by Balanchine-trained alumni of the New York City Ballet, and the dances Balanchine made are performed by every major company in the world. None of that would have happened without Lincoln Kirstein.

“People have trouble figuring out who I am,” Kirstein once remarked. “They can’t make out if I’m a PR man for the City Ballet, or if it was all some kind of accident, or if I’m just a rich boy who tagged along.” He was rich, but he was no dilettante. In fact, as I put it in a book about Balanchine, Kirstein was “something far more remarkable: an amateur who turned himself into a professional. Without Balanchine, he might have spent the rest of his days chasing his own tail. Without Kirstein, on the other hand, Balanchine’s genius might never have been recognized.”7 By making it possible for a giant of modernism to spend the second half of his life choreographing ballets and having them performed by a company meticulously trained in his demanding style, Kirstein secured for himself a not-so-minor place in the history of 20th-century art.


Footnotes

1 Knopf, 723 pp., $37.50.

2 Harvey Klehr reviewed it for COMMENTARY (May 1989).

3 Among the figures represented in its shows were Aleksandr Archipenko, Max Beckmann, Alexander Calder, Giorgio di Chirico, Edward Hopper, Paul Klee, John Marin, Isamu Noguchi, Diego Rivera, and Chaim Soutine.

4 He was already exhibiting unmistakable signs of the bipolar disorder that would afflict him throughout his life, though it was not until many years later that his illness became sufficiently severe for him to be hospitalized and formally diagnosed.

5 “How can Kirstein be a director of a ballet company?” Fokine would later quip. “He took some ballet lessons from me, and he can’t get his feet off the floor.”

6 Only two of Kirstein’s books have proved to be of lasting interest: Elie Nadelman (1973), a critical monograph on the sculptor, and Nijinsky Dancing (1975), a superlatively well-edited collection of photographs of Vaslav Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s premier danseur.

7 All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (2005).

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