The man who Americanized ballet behind the scenes

THE WORLDS OF LINCOLN KIRSTEIN

By Martin Duberman

Knopf, $37.50, 736 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

Lincoln Kirstein isn’t a name you’re likely to know unless you are a fan of classical ballet, or

someone interested in the arts in general who happened to live in New York City in the 20th century. But if you’re either of those (or both), Kirstein’s name will be instantly recognizable, though you may have some trouble defining precisely what it was that made Kirstein famous.

That’s understandable because Kirstein, who died in 1996 at the age of 88, was very often the powerful (but less public) force behind artists with names far better known than his, but who, without his efforts, would very likely never have become so widely known and admired.

Kirstein, for instance, was instrumental in bringing the great Russian choreographer George Balanchine from Europe to America in the 1930s, where Balanchine blossomed not only as a teacher and choreographer of classical ballet and a dancer, but also as a widely respected choreographer of Broadway shows and Hollywood films.

And most who know ballet’s history in this country believe that without Kirstein’s unremitting hard work and personal sacrifice through good times and bad, the American School of Ballet would never have become the great institution it is, nor would it have exerted the enormous influence on dance in America that it has.

The list goes on. Kirstein played important roles in the development of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in the creation of Lincoln Center and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He helped further the careers of artists he admired such as photographer Walker Evans and painter Honore Sharrer.

And he was a published poet who wrote monographs on the sculptor Elie Nadelman and the painters Paul Cadmus and Pavel Tchelitchev, as well as several very good books on dance that remain essential works.

Kirstein knew a host of the movers and shakers of his time, including people as various as politician Nelson Rockefeller, the poet Wystan Auden, novelist E.M. Forster, painter Andrew Wyeth, and many, many others whose names remain well known.

Kirstein’s was a rich life full of magnificent material for a biographer, and Martin Duberman in his new and very long and well-illustrated book, “The Many Lives of Lincoln Kirstein,” makes good use of it, at least most of the time.

Mr. Duberman, professor emeritus of history at City University of New York, does very well indeed on the first half of Kirstein’s long life. The future balletomane’s father, Louis, never went beyond grade school but rose to become an executive at Filene’s, the Boston department store, a close friend of Supreme Court associate justice Felix Frankfurter and an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

His mother, Rose Stein, was the daughter of a successful Rochester, N.Y., businessman who dealt in men’s clothing. Lincoln Kirstein was born in Rochester in 1907 and educated at Berkshire School and Harvard.

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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