One day in 1929, in a coincidence that he later took as a sign, the young Lincoln Kirstein walked into a church in Venice and stumbled on Serge Diaghilev’s funeral. Diaghilev had rescued Western ballet from near-extinction; without him, as Kirstein understood, the future of the art was in doubt. “It is hard to convey the feeling of loss one has, having seen [ballet], fearing never to see it again,” he wrote in 1930. “It is exactly the same as if one were deprived of a literature, a whole language of expression; for instance to wake up one morning and know one could never read Tolstoy or Proust or Shakespeare again.”
Three years later, Kirstein, age twenty-six, went to Paris and persuaded George Balanchine, the last and best of Diaghilev’s choreographers, to come to the United States with the goal of starting a ballet company. In 1934 the two men opened the School of American Ballet in New York; the following year they inaugurated the first of several companies that were to culminate, in 1948, in the New York City Ballet. The rest of the story is well known. Through the medium of Balanchine’s choreography and teaching, ballet in the next few decades became a modernist art, and NYCB the hub of Western ballet. If Diaghilev had once saved ballet, Kirstein and Balanchine saved it again, and as with Diaghilev, their doing so affected not just dance but art in general, and history, and urban life. Part of what made New York such a nice place to live in the Fifties through Seventies was that at eight o’clock the curtain rose on New York City Ballet.
For about seventy years now, Kirstein has been writing—books, program and catalog essays, article after article, on painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, film, literature, history, politics. He has also published two novels and several books of poetry. In 1978, Yale University Library brought out a list of his publications, cautiously entitled Lincoln Kirstein: A First Bibliography. It runs to 150 pages. But for anyone involved in ballet, the most important part of Kirstein’s bibliography will always be his dance writings. Dance critics tend to be autodidacts, for until recently there were almost no university programs in the history of dance. Art critics, music critics, are trained to do what they do; most dance critics, myself included, are people who were doing something else altogether when one day they fell in love with dance and realized that, if they were going to write about it, they had much to learn, fast. Wherever we turned, Kirstein had been there first, and laid out what was needed. A company to watch? New York City Ballet—Lincoln Kirstein, general director. A school where we could observe classes? The School of American Ballet—Lincoln Kirstein, president. A research library? In 1940 Kirstein donated his collection of over 5,000 books and documents on dance to the Museum of Modern Art; this material was …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.