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Lincoln Kirstein - More Resources

Lincoln Kirstein (1907 - 1996)

By Lynn Garafola

Lincoln Kirstein was a writer, critic, arts patron, cofounder of the New York City Ballet, and indefatigable champion of choreographer George Balanchine, whom he brought to the United States in 1933.

A maverick in the true sense of the word, Kirstein was a towering figure in the history of American ballet.  Dance was not his first love (from an early age he wrote poetry and painted) nor was it his only love (at one time or another he wrote about film, sculpture, and photography), but it was the one that remained a constant presence in his life from his teen years and to which he made a contribution that remains well-nigh incalculable.  Born in Rochester to parents of German-Jewish heritage, he grew up in privileged circumstances in Boston, where his father, a partner in Filene's with a passion for American history, became a well-known philanthropist.  Kirstein inherited his father's strong sense of civic responsibility, and from an early age used his wealth and other less tangible gifts to benefit a host of arts institutions.

Kirstein attended Phillips Exeter and the Berkshire Academy, and like so many future members of the Eastern elite went on to Harvard University.  Here, he found himself at the nerve center of a group that would transform the landscape of American cultural life.  In 1926, with Varian Fry, he founded The Hound & Horn, a literary review that during its seven years of existence published Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Edmund Wilson as well as Kirstein's first major essay on dance, "The Diaghilev Period."  The following year, with John Walker III and Edward M.M. Warburg, he founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which exhibited works by artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, Constantin Brancusi, and Alexander Calder.  By 1930, the year he left Harvard, he was a member of the junior advisory committee of New York's Museum of Modern Art, where would curate a controversial show on American mural art, arrange a retrospective of sculptor Gaston Lachaise and the first major exhibition of Walker Evans' photographs, organize a Soviet film archive, and set up the country's first dance archive – all during the 1930s.  In 1932, he published his first book, Flesh Is Heir, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel full of references to the Ballets Russes.

It was this celebrated company, founded and directed by Serge Diaghilev from 1909 to 1929, that was to inspire Kirstein's love of ballet.  He first saw the company in 1916 when it toured the United States, though not its great star, Vaslav Nijinsky; during the middle and late 1920s he kept up with the company on summer holidays in London.  In New York he studied ballet with Michel Fokine, the Ballets Russes choreographer on whom Kirstein initially pinned his hopes for the development of a native American ballet.  This was not to be.  But the idea of ballet as an art of high seriousness, a feast for the eye, ear, and intellect, a mode of expression at once traditional but also modern, classical but open to experiment – this model, which Kirstein absorbed from the Ballets Russes, became his credo.  And in Diaghilev, a Napoleonic man of action with the soul of an artist and the taste of a connoisseur, he discovered a model for his own restless intelligence and ambition.

The turning point came in 1933 when Kirstein invited the Russian-born George Balanchine, Diaghilev's last in-house choreographer, to form a company in New York.  Their partnership, which would transform American ballet from a popular curiosity or European import to a respected art, lasted until Balanchine's death in 1983.  Initially, they experienced more failures than successes.  Indeed, with the exception of the School of American Ballet, which opened its doors in 1934 and has never closed them, the companies they founded in the 1930s and early 1940s quickly foundered.  Of these none was more significant for Kirstein than Ballet Caravan.  Founded in 1936, at the height of the Popular Front, this small touring company was an experiment in creating a repertory that was American in theme and modernist in form, a means of associating ballet with the country's emerging avant-garde.  Although Billy the Kid, which had music by Aaron Copland and choreography by Eugene Loring, is the only Caravan work still performed, for Kirstein the experience of directing a ballet company proved to be invaluable.

From 1943 to 1945 Kirstein served in the United States Army, where among other duties he supervised the recovery of the massive collection of art looted by the Nazis in Alt Aussee, Germany.  Within a year of his discharge he again teamed up with Balanchine to form Ballet Society, a subscription-based organization that produced a host of new works, including two of Balanchine's masterpieces, The Four Temperaments (1946) and  Orpheus (1948).  Most of the money came from Kirstein, who had received a substantial inheritance, and he spent lavishly, commissioning designs from Noguchi and second-generation surrealists like Kurt Seligmann and Estebán Francés, and music from Igor Stravinsky, Eliott Carter, John Cage, and Gian-Carlo Menotti (for the opera The Telephone).  By 1948, when Kirstein's funds were becoming rapidly depleted, Morton Baum, chairman of the executive committee of New York's City Center, came to the rescue by inviting the company to join the New York City Opera and City Center Orchestra in becoming a constituent of this "people's" theatre, opened only five years before by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The New York City Ballet danced its first performance at City Center in 1948.  Times were tough; although the company now had a home, it was still penniless; it needed a repertoire and an audience, dancers with polish and regular seasons.  Kirstein was in his element.  With indefatigable energy, he sought out donors, pulled strings to arrange prestigious foreign tours, found money for costumes, decors, new music, even to underwrite productions by guest choreographers.  In 1952, when he became managing director of City Center, he persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation's Division of Humanities to appropriate $200,000 "to cover the costs of creative preparatory work on new productions in ballet and opera."  (Kirstein's friendship with Nelson Rockefeller, the future New York governor, went back to the early 1930s.)  With fully half the sum allocated to the New York City Ballet, this was the first grant awarded to an American dance ensemble by a leading philanthropic institution.  Nearly a dozen operas and ballets came to the stage thanks to Rockefeller largesse, including The Nutcracker, the most expensive production the young company had ever mounted.  Even as the New York City Opera began to chafe at Kirstein's high-handed ways, he began to dream of a City Center that was virtually a blueprint for what later became Lincoln Center, an institution housing all the performing arts as well as professional training facilities.  Indeed, within months of Kirstein's resignation because of policy differences with the New York City Opera, he had joined the committee headed by John D. Rockefeller III "to explore," as The New York Times reported, "the feasibility of an artistic set-up that would take in ballet, concerts, chamber music, drama, light opera and perhaps educational programs, as well as opera and symphony."

By 1955 Kirstein had laid his creative ambitions largely to rest.  Instead, he turned his attention to strengthening the two institutions to which he would dedicate his remaining years--the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet.  It was his herculean efforts and politicking that secured the publically-funded New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center for the New York City Ballet – an accomplishment that earned him the enmity of the rest of the dance world.  This was compounded by the series of Ford Foundation grants that beginning in 1959 and continuing well into the 1970s enabled the School of American Ballet to transform itself from a New York-based institution to a national one, which could recruit students from around the country.  And when SAB relocated in the Juilliard School's new Lincoln Center studios, displacing Juilliard's own ballet program, which was now abolished, it seemed to many that undue influence was being exerted by Kirstein in high places.  However, it was not until SAB acquired its own quarters in the Rose Building, along with dormitory facilities, that Kirstein's dream of creating an national American academy of ballet was finally realized.

Even apart from SAB and the New York City Ballet, Kirstein's contributions to dance were enormous.  His writings alone form perhaps the most distinguished corpus of any American writer on dance.  His Dance:  A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, published in 1935, was an extraordinary accomplishment for a twenty-eight-year-old and remained in print for decades.  Movement and Metaphor:  Four Centuries of Ballet, published thirty-five years later, was a brilliant if idiosyncratic analysis of seminal works of dance history, while Nijinsky Dancing paid homage to the Ballets Russes icon who first excited Kirstein's interest in the male dancer.  In books like Blast at Ballet:  A Corrective for the American Audience and allet Alphabet:  A Primer for Laymen, both published in the late 1930s, he took on the Russians who dominated ballet of the period knowledgeably, fearlessly, and with punch.  He was a prolific essayist, publishing not only in journals like Theatre  Arts and Modern Music, but also in left-wing periodicals such as The Nation and New Theatre, glossy magazines such as Town and Country, and despite his profound dislike of modern dance (apart from Martha Graham) even in Dance Observer, its unofficial house organ.  His essays of the 1930s, unlike his later ones for The New York Review of Books, were free of the crustiness that by the late 1970s sounded much like the jeremiads of neoconservatives traumatized by the Age of Aquarius.

From his father Kirstein inherited a great sense of public service.  To the New York Public Library's Dance Collection he donated thousands of volumes – Russian books (including a complete run of the Yearbooks of the Imperial Theaters), nineteenth-century American dance manuals, rare French and Italian books – as well as all his diaries and papers.  The Ballet Caravan and American Ballet set and costume designs went to the Museum of Modern Art, his collection of George Platt Lynes photographs, which commemorated nearly twenty years of work with Balanchine, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He was a founder of Dance Index, a quarterly published between 1942 and 1948 whose monographs even today bear reading – essays on Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Isadora Duncan; on designers Eugene Berman and Pavel Tchelitchew; on the romantic ballet by George Chaffee; on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov by the Soviet scholar Yury Slonimsky; on nineteenth-century American dance by Lillian Moore.  With covers by Joseph Cornell, Dance Index was visually as well as intellectually stimulating.

The visual arts were Kirstein's second love.  Innumerable artists were recipients of his patronage, including Tchelitchew (about whom he published a book in 1994), Noguchi, Ben Shahn, Paul Cadmus (whose sister Fidelma he married in 1941, although he was gay or bisexual), and Elie Nadelman.  He mounted numerous exhibitions, especially in his early years, and in many cases wrote the accompanying catalogues.  He loved photography and wrote presciently about the work of Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other modernists.  In the 1940s he came under the sway of the surrealists, and when they were eclipsed by the overnight triumph of abstract expressionism, he denounced the new movement along with the Museum of Modern Art, which supported it, in a 1948 article written for Harper's Magazine.  In his insistence upon the figurative, the erstwhile modernist turned his back on contemporary art.

A true man of letters, Kirstein wrote poetry, novels, plays, and volumes of reminiscence.  However, he was more of a critic than a creative writer.  His poetry, although competent, seldom sings, and his fiction lacks narrative energy and the gift for making characters come alive.  Kirstein was not unaware of this.  But it made him all the more cognizant of talent in others and all the more willing to support it.  Kirstein's private acts of generosity were often unsung, and few were the artists or writers or dancers among his acquaintance who did not receive small sums of cash to tide them over.  Such generosity also extended to African-Americans.  The School of American Ballet welcomed its first black students at least as early as the mid-1940s, and by 1950 nearly a dozen were enrolled in the summer course.  And in 1965 Kirstein was in Selma marching in support of civil rights.

Brilliant, controversial, single-minded, ever loyal, Kirstein did more than anyone to make ballet an American art.  He brought Balanchine to the U.S., then struggled to make it possible for him to stay, and fought to build institutions that would enable his company, his work, and his school to survive.  He used his wealth wisely and well to promote not only what he loved but also what in his high-toned Brahmin way he felt the country needed.  Another patron of Kirstein's magnitude will be long in coming.

Lynn Garafola is a Professor of Dance at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. A dance historian and critic, she is the author of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance, and the editor of several books, including The Diaries of Marius Petipa (which she also translated), André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties (with Joan Acocella); Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet; José Limón: An Unfinished Memoir, and The Ballets Russes and Its World (with Nancy Van Norman Baer). She has curated several exhibitions, including Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet (at the NewYork State Historical Society); 500 Years of Italian Dance: Treasures from the Cia Fornaroli Collection (with Patrizia Veroli), New York Story: Jerome Robbins and His World, and Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath (all at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts). A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is a former Getty Scholar and a recipient of fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and National Endowment for the Humanties. Former editor of the book series Studies in Dance History, she has written for Dance Magazine, Ballet Review, Dance Research, The Nation, Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. A member of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the organizer of conferences, symposia, and public programs on the history of ballet and twentieth-century dance generally, she is currently working on a book about the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska.



Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Kirstein's major autobiographical works are Thirty Years:  The New York City Ballet (New York:  Knopf, 1978), Quarry:  A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs (Pasadena:  Twelvetrees Press, 1986), and Mosaic:  Memoirs (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994).

Martin Duberman wrote the first and only full-scale biography of Kirstein, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Knopf, 2007).  Nicholas Fox Weber’s Patron Saints:  Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928-1943 (New York:  Knopf, 1992) gives a good account of Kirstein's years prior to the Second World War, while Nancy Reynolds in her essay "Diaghilev and Lincoln Kirstein" (in The Ballets Russes and Its World, ed. Lynn Garafola, with Nancy Van Norman Baer [New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1999]) surveys his whole life, comparing it to Diaghilev's. 

There are two major collections of Kirstein's writings:  Ballet:  Bias and Belief: "Three Pamphlets Collected" and Other Dance Writings of Lincoln Kirstein, introd. Nancy Reynolds (New York:  Dance Horizons, 1983) and By With To & From:  A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, ed. Nicholas Jenkins (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991). 

A detailed chronology of Kirstein's life can be found in Lincoln Kirstein:  The Published Writings 1922-1977:  A First Bibliography (comp. Harvey Simmonds, Louis H. Silverstein, and Nancy Lassalle [New Haven:  Yale University Library, 1978]); this is an invaluable guide to Kirstein's writings, although it does not contain any publications from the last two decades of his life.  Lincoln Kirstein: The Published Writings has not only updated this first bibliography, but also includes excerpts from a number of titles.  It is available at http://www.lincolnkirstein.org.




Kirstein's papers and diaries are in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.