Kirstein’s Dance of Life: A Patron, But No Saint

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In October 1960, Lincoln Kirstein “was able to confide to a few people that the state would be spending $17,500,000 to erect a dance theater. It would be designed by Philip Johnson and seat twenty-six hundred people.” This building would become the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. “It had, astonishingly, happened,” writes Kirstein’s authorized biographer, Martin Duberman, by now on page 543 of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. “After nearly thirty dogged years of hand-to-mouth begging, determined improvisation, and alternating periods of despair and euphoria, the New York City Ballet would finally have a permanent home and a guaranteed future.”

Lincoln Kirstein first saw George Balanchine dancing the role of the wizard Kastchei in Firebird in London in 1925. This was before Kirstein went to Harvard, where he would found not only the erudite literary magazine Hound and Horn—the beginning of his lifelong contribution to American letters—but also co-found an art society that became the precursor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This presaged Kirstein’s lifelong patronage and promotion of visual artists. But, as Mr. Duberman notes, “[t]he ballet mattered to him more than anything else.” And it is as the New York City Ballet and George Balanchine’s patron that Kirstein is best known.

He brought Balanchine to New York in 1933, after concluding that Balanchine was the choreographer to establish an American ballet. Before starting several companies that preceded City Ballet, Kirstein founded and funded the School of American Ballet, which would become the training ground for a new breed of dancer—the Balanchine ballerina.

Kirstein was a brilliant fund-raiser—his parents, and later Nelson Rockefeller, were among his staunchest supporters—but the pockets into which he reached most deeply were his own. The Kirstein family fortune came from the department-store chain that began with Filene’s in Boston. Named for Abraham Lincoln, with a background of “tempestuous family dynamics” and a father dedicated to public service, Kirstein himself was “never happy without a multitude of simultaneous projects.” This is not a book for balletomanes who want to see the City Ballet repertory translated into prose (though there’s plenty of what Mr. Duberman calls “ballet tattle”) and this makes perfect sense, because Kirstein was not a choreographer.

As in his invaluable history of Black Mountain College, Mr. Duberman is interested in the whole package. His book is not only a portrait of a person, but also the map of a socio-cultural matrix—with some of the culture fomented by Kirstein himself. This was a life lived large: He worked as a government operative in South America under Rockefeller while collecting paintings for the Museum of Modern Art; he brought kabuki theater from Japan to America; he championed the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Conn.; he managed to turn a stint in the Army into a giant art project. Just as large were his appetites, both physical and intellectual, and his “embrace of complexity, ambivalence, and contradiction as central to ‘human nature.’”

Mr. Duberman calls Kirstein by his first name, as you would someone you’ve known from childhood—and his book begins with his subject’s earliest years. In the opening chapters, he deftly establishes the combination of nature (such as an unabashed pan-sexuality that included sibling incest, and a gene for superior organizational skills) and nurture (dedication to causes and higher purposes, and a habit of generosity) that informed Kirstein’s character.

There was a lot of sex in Lincoln Kirstein’s worlds, some with women but mostly with men. Throughout the narrative, there are lucid explications of tricky entanglements, as well as an ongoing catalog of the more casual occupations of a man who was, as Mr. Duberman puts it, “no slouch at sexual slumming.” Mr. Duberman is no slouch at telling about it. He also asks questions, often the same ones we find ourselves asking as we read. And he delicately suggests answers. “Perhaps,” he writes. “Perhaps …. Perhaps …. ”

Kirstein pursued his mostly homosexual sex life alongside his marriage to Paul Cadmus’ sister Fidelma. Their long union was marked by attentiveness, love and mental breakdowns on both sides. Kirstein underwent electroshock treatments to control his manic outbursts; he was also prey to deep depression. Today, he would be diagnosed as bipolar. His is the kind of accomplishment that argues for madness as the grim handmaiden of greatness.

As a young man, Kirstein wanted to be a painter, and in the beginning of his involvement with the ballet he seems to have envisioned himself as the successor to Diaghilev, involved in every aspect of production. Indeed, he occupied such an aesthetic role in Ballet Caravan, the company he ran from 1936 to 1940. With City Ballet, his role evolved quite differently, yet the model is a familiar one.

KIRSTEIN WAS A PARENT, though Fidelma and Lincoln had no children. His children were the School of American Ballet and City Ballet, and, as in much parenting, his job was both rewarding and thankless. In later years, the school especially was a serpent’s tooth, and the company moved on without him, surviving Balanchine after his death—and Kirstein while he was still alive. Still, they are his legacy. Every ballet, every dancer.

When we go to the ballet, all of us are Lincoln Kirstein’s beneficiaries. I first attended City Ballet as a little girl, snuggled up against my grandmother, watching Firebird and The Nutcracker. I am grateful to Kirstein for that and for so much else that was wondrous and beautiful that came after. Thus, it was with special sorrow that I read of one of his own last visits there: “By the mid-nineties Lincoln had basically stopped going out …. Once, with Jensen [Yow]’s help, he made it to the outside of the State Theater, but felt too weak to go in; Lincoln started to cry, while Jensen held his hand and the two hid behind the columns to prevent being seen.”

How can you read that and not cry, too? It’s Martin Duberman’s great accomplishment that he’s given us—his book’s title notwithstanding—a unified, empathetic notion of Lincoln Kirstein, entire.


Nancy Dalva is senior writer at 2wice.

Kirstein’s Dance of Life: A Patron, But No Saint