The man who Americanized ballet behind the scenes

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At neither place was he good student, Mr. Duberman shows, though teachers and fellow students regarded him as brilliant. Many things interested the young Kirstein: Drama, literature, painting, writing, sculpture and, from very early days, dance, and for them he could muster enormous enthusiasm. For the demands of most of his classes, he could arouse very little interest at all.

While still a Harvard undergraduate, however, he had begun to make a name for himself. Along with a few other students, Kirstein founded the influential Hound and Horn, a literary journal modeled on T.S. Eliot’s the Criterion that published work by and about Eliot and Ezra Pound (the journal’s title was taken from a Pound poem) and other modernist poets and writers.

Kirstein was also active in the creation of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, a group of students and faculty created while he was still a student, which struggled to overcome what its members regarded as the stodginess of Boston museums by successfully arranging to have works by then contemporary (and in Boston anathema) artists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield shown in local galleries.

Mr. Duberman notes that several of the society’s exhibitions were later repeated by New York’s MoMA. Other aspects of his life similarly surfaced in the early years. Kirstein was subject lifelong to periods of manic behavior that grew increasingly worse as he aged, requiring, at times, hospitalization, even straitjacket restraint, problems that Mr. Duberman mentions but does not dwell upon.

And from his youth on, Kirstein was sexually active with both women and men, though from Mr. Duberman’s description, he was clearly more homosexual than not. Despite his marriage in 1941 to the beautiful Fidelma Cadmus, Kirstein’s succession of younger male lovers never ceased, even when those affairs troubled his wife, who was herself subject to depression and hysteria, which deepened as time passed.

Mr. Duberman goes into the trials and tribulations of establishing an American ballet company in New York City, perhaps more than most readers would want. Stories of financial crises and their last-minute resolutions, for instance, tend to sound very much alike, and there are many of these crises in this biography.

And most readers are unlikely to have much patience with the endless quarrels and temper tantrums of vain and childish ballet stars, both female and male, no matter how closely those fits of ego came to putting an end to Kirstein’s hopes and plans. A single chapter on the difficulties of care and feeding the ballet corps would have sufficed.

On the other hand, Mr. Duberman’s descriptions of such high points in Kirstein’s life (and the history of American ballet) as the 1938 premieres of “Filing Station” and “Billy the Kid” may find readers wishing the biographer had more to say.

After all, those two ballets, American as no ballets had ever been American, fulfilled, as Mr. Duberman shows but could have developed more fully, what Kirstein in his own published writing on dance thought of as the elements of a quintessentially American style.

According to Kirstein those elements are: Leanness, “visual asceticism,” candor and “an awkwardness which is in itself elegant, shared also by some of our finest Colonial silver … [and] the quicksilver of Emily Dickinson’s unrhymed quatrains.”

Still, this book is a rich portrait of an extraordinary and difficult man, and of his very large circle of friends and acquaintances. There are unforgettable moments: The 6-foot-3 Kirstein, for example, loaded down with tutus hailing a taxi in the rain.

Or Kirstein’s summation of conductor Leonard Bernstein, a man he loathed: “Lennie doesn’t know if he is a boy or a man,” though “he has half a suspicion that if he is not God, he is some sort of god.”

One comes from this biography in awe of Kirstein’s protean energy and achievements. As Mr. Duberman shows, the few times that energy fell into profound depression take a distant backseat to a life intensely lived.

Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.

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