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 novels1 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 later transferred to the New York Public Library, where it became one of the pillars of the Dance Collection, now the largest dance research library in the world.2
Could we use a good journal on dance? In 1942, Kirstein co-founded Dance Index, which ran for seven years, publishing pioneering articles on Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Balinese dance, Haitian dance, dance notation, dance lithographs, dance films.3 Did we need, in addition, a history of dance? Kirstein’s Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, written when he was twenty-eight, is still definitive. A book on ballet technique? The Classic Ballet (1952), by Kirstein and Muriel Stuart. This is not to mention the checks he wrote, the calls he made, the people he bullied and cajoled. I remember, about eight years ago, being told that the decades-long campaign to build a dormitory for the School of American Ballet students, so that they wouldn’t have to be boarded out at people’s houses, was finally getting off the ground. A million dollars had already been raised—from one check: Kirstein’s. Other checks soon followed.
When Kirstein went on his fateful trip to Paris in 1933, he was looking not just for a choreographer but for assurance that ballet was something solid and real—in other words, that he wasn’t crazy to think of transplanting it to America. Ballets existed, but did Ballet exist? Was it a genuine art, with its own history and tradition? In the libraries of Paris, he found the history. Balanchine, too, told him, he says, that “the classic dance was a concrete entity, almost a three-dimensional structure.” But such a structure, as they both knew, did not extend to the United States. That it does now, and that twelve years after Balanchine’s death, with few, if any, interesting ballet choreographers in view, the structure is still in place, with over two hundred companies across the country, working away faithfully, is due in large measure to Kirstein.
Kirstein made history, and as his recent memoir, Mosaic,4 makes clear, he believes he was destined to. Like many ballet people, he is a believer in signs. The fire engine that roared, scarlet and gold, past his house when he was a boy; his father’s “Antonio y Cleopatra” cigar box, “embossed with tragedians framed in a red-and-gold proscenium arch”; a childhood visit to the Bayreuth Festival—“all were signposts,” he says, pointing him toward the theater. Mosaic cuts off in 1933, long before New York City Ballet was founded, but the last sentence shows Kirstein taking off to meet with Balanchine and close the deal that will bring the choreographer to America. The book ends not with a period but with ellipses.
So NYCB runs through this book like an underground river, waiting to find its outlet, but there were tributaries, ideas that grew in Kirstein’s mind, determining not just his turn toward ballet, but the whole trend of his thought. What produced these ideas? he asks. His childhood home, for one thing. Lincoln Edward Kirstein, named for his father’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, was born in Rochester, New York, in 1907, the second child of a prosperous German-Jewish family that grew far more prosperous when in 1911 they moved to Boston and Mr. Kirstein became a partner in Filene’s department store. They installed themselves in a furnished mansion rented from a man with elaborate tastes. Kirstein lovingly retraces his steps through the house: the Napoleonic entrance hall, hung with green silk; the copies of Velázquez and Titian on the stairs and landing; the electrotypes of Roman statuary in the living room: “The Boy Removing a Thorn,” “The Dancing Faun.” Then there were the additions his mother made to the house, such as her “Chinese bedroom,” papered in gold and upholstered in scarlet, with pillows covered in fabrics cut from eighteenth-century Chinese court robes. The family also had a set of Tiffany’s “mythological” dinner service: “knives, forks, slim pincers for cracking lobster claws, coral-handled toothpicks, scimitars for roasts, small shovels, and sauce spoons—each was smartly modeled with a classical deity.”
For the infant Kirstein, this house was a fairyland, a forest of symbols, and it helped to lay the ground for his aesthetic principles. First, the importance of tradition, of history. Time and again in his writings Kirstein has stressed “apostolic succession,” the passing down of an art from hand to hand. This concern was certainly one of the factors that predisposed him toward ballet; because it has no recorded text, ballet is more hand-to-hand than any other art. In any case, the objects that cluttered his childhood home, from the Roman statues to the Tiffany flatware, were his first history lesson. A second principle was what he would later call “digital mastery.” There is hardly a single piece of writing by Kirstein on the visual arts that does not celebrate technical skill. This, again, was surely one of the things that drew him toward ballet. Any art that requires its practitioners to go back to class for an hour and a half every morning is to him a serious endeavor. In the visual arts, technical accomplishment became, perhaps, his primary criterion of excellence—the grounds of his rejection of Abstract Expressionism (“slack improvisations of doodle and trash”), the basis for his love of nineteenth-century painting and its twentieth-century inheritors.
Eventually these principles became matters not just of art but of morality. They tied the artist to reality, and for Kirstein as for Ruskin, whom he took as an oracle when he was young, that tie was the measure of art’s truth. Apart from tradition and craft, the main theme of his writings is his distrust of the “self.” The year after Balanchine’s death Kirstein published an impassioned essay, “A Ballet Master’s Belief,”5 on the relation between Balanchine’s work and his religious faith. In the iconography of the Russian Orthodox church, he points out, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, is not the hairy, brown devil that he is to the Western church. He looks exactly like the other angels—gold robes, nice wings—but for one difference. His face, hands, and feet are black. His sin, then, is lack of transparency: “willful incapacity to admit the difference between light and darkness, obsessive preference for personal difference.” It is that sin, Kirstein says, that distinguishes twentieth-century modern dance from its older sister, ballet: the modern dancers’ repudiation of history, their insistence on creating, each dancer for herself, a new style—in other words, their enclosure in the self. Twentieth-century painting, he feels, shows the same failing: “a coarse, permissive, idiosyncratic expressionism, rooted in self-pity and ostentation.”
What these artists turned their backs on, however, was not just tradition but the thing the tradition had evolved to represent: the world. Modern painting’s desertion of representation was a personal grief to Kirstein. He got over it by turning to arts that kept the faith: drawing, so closely tied to the human figure; photography, with its documentary truth; above all, ballet, with its unadorned human bodies, moving in three dimensions. “At [this] moment,” he wrote in The Classic Ballet, “when representational art has declined into subjective expressionism, and its chief former subject, the human body in space, has been atomized into rhetorical calligraphy, the academic dance is a fortress of its familiar if forgotten dignity. To it future painters and sculptors may one day return for instruction in its wide plastic use.” So ballet is reality’s government in exile.
These have been his principles, not widely different from the views of other thinking people who grew up in the classicist Twenties. What made Kirstein different was his commitment to action, his sense that he could actually change the direction of the arts. In part, this faith was bred in him by his father. Mr. Kirstein was part of a generation of Jews who, however wealthy and assimilated and public-spirited they might be (Mr. Kirstein was not just a partner in Filene’s but also the president of the Boston Public Library), were still regarded as people in “trade.” Therefore when his son turned out to have no head for business but a thousand ideas about art, Mr. Kirstein was quite willing to encourage him. As Kirstein put it in a 1986 interview with The New Yorker, “My father gave me the idea that…anything could be possible for me.” To make things more possible, Mr. Kirstein settled on Lincoln a sizable fortune when the latter was still in his twenties.
As early as 1933, when he was twenty-six, Kirstein wrote to his friend Allen Tate: “I am trying to jockey myself into a position where eventually I can act as I like in relation to the employment…of artists in this country.” Actually, he had begun the jockeying long before. While still an undergraduate at Harvard, he had co-founded the literary quarterly Hound & Horn as well as the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. Through them he made good connections, which he soon parlayed into further connections, and further. In some cases, he was lucky. For example, his sister, Mina, twelve years older than he, lived and wrote in London on the fringes of Bloomsbury, with the result that Kirstein, at age fifteen, was being taken around Cézanne exhibits by John Maynard Keynes. But most of the work he did on his own, just by putting himself in the right place and being smart, genial, attractive, and rich. When he came to New York after Harvard, he installed himself in the parlor of the writer/saloneuse Muriel Draper, who introduced him to an intellectual “high low-life”—Carl Van Vechten, Edmund Wilson, assorted jazz singers and Communists—that after the thin, upper-class air of Boston and Cambridge he longed to descend to. In Paris, Virgil Thomson, who knew everyone, took him in hand and brought him to the artists he wanted to meet. Later, through his connections at the Museum of Modern Art, he made friends with its patron Nelson Rockefeller and thus became one of the planners of the Rockefeller Center decorations. Rockefeller inspired him, he says: “He always talked about buildings as if they were built.”
Minor scruples did not deter him. One small example: he not only collaborated (anonymously) with Romola Nijinsky on her 1933 biography of her husband; he also reviewed it, in The Nation. “Remarkable,” he called it. Romola, a notorious liar and opportunist, is one of the people he credits most gratefully for showing him how to get by in the world—how to make snap judgments, improvise, dominate. These, he says, are essential skills for anyone who wants to work in the theater. Diaghilev had been a master of them, and at Romola’s knee, Kirstein imagined himself becoming “a veteran of Diaghilev’s household.”
If Diaghilev was one influence, another was the Armenian spiritualist G.I. Gurdjieff, whose school, the so-called Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, Kirstein visited in 1927, when he was twenty. To this day, Kirstein sees his meeting with Gurdjieff as the decisive event in his life: “He exerted more influence on my behavior than anyone, including my parents.” Gurdjieff, he claims, was a “magician,” and he means this literally. For years, even after Gurdjieff’s death in 1945, he refrained from writing about him. “If I wrong him, I am afraid of his ghost beyond the grave,” he wrote in 1983. Even now, he says in Mosaic, he feels a “paralyzing inadequacy” in trying to put down his thoughts about “Mr. Gurdjieff.”
Yet strange to say, the memoir offers a hilarious account of their encounter, with Kirstein cast as Candide and Gurdjieff as a sort of crafty Armenian troll. Taken to the Institute by his friend Payson Loomis, who had fallen under Gurdjieff’s spell and was working as his secretary (Loomis later transferred his discipleship to Norman Vincent Peale), Kirstein spent the day watching Gurdjieff’s students dance, dig holes, and perform other improving exercises. Come nightfall, there was a community banquet, featuring hors d’oeuvres that looked to Kirstein’s astonished eyes like “bits of boiled tarpaulin, wax flowers, clippings of sponge or rubber,” and, for the main course, a grisly-looking roast lamb, of which Gurdjieff, with the air of conferring a great honor, made Kirstein eat the charred eyeballs. The master then got Kirstein very drunk. The next day, before leaving, Kirstein went to thank Gurdjieff for his hospitality. In Mosaic their parting conversation is reproduced as a dialogue. It begins with Kirstein saying he has to hurry away because he has an appointment in Paris with Ezra Pound, “a very great poet.”
G. What kind poem he write?
K. He writes every kind.
G. Every kind. He write sex-poems?
G. No. I mean fuck-poems.
K. No, Mr. Gurdjieff. It is Ezra Pound. He also writes wonderful translations. He has taught me a lot….
G. Yes, I know Ezra Pound very well—for long time. He likes my soup.
K. (incredulous) He likes your soup?
G. Very much he like my soup…. You know what Ezra Pound call my soup?
K. Not really…
G. You know painting?
K. (modestly) A little bit.
G. You know Rembrandt?
K. Of course.
G. Of course. You know Piero della Francesca?
K. (back on his heels) Yes, certainly…
G. Ezra Pound say my Persian-melon soup…is clean like Piero della Francesca, compare to shit-color Rembrandt. Now, what you want?
G. Mister, I tell you what you want. You want pay me.
Gurdjieff then cleaned out his new disciple’s wallet and, having drawn out the conversation long enough to make him late for his train, sent him on his way.
But the comedy lasts only as long as Kirstein’s description of his day at the school. When he goes on to address the guru’s teachings, the “paralyzing inadequacy” sets in, and the account becomes vague. This is true, in fact, of all the statements Kirstein has made in print on the subject of Gurdjieff. It is impossible to tell whether Kirstein ever spent more than one day at the school. (He mentions later contacts with Gurdjieff, but he never says what they were.) As for Gurdjieff’s philosophy of life and its effect on him, all he is able to say is very general. Yet it is clear that Gurdjieff reinforced the sense of “possibility” that Kirstein’s father had inculcated in him. Gurdjieff believed that most human beings sleepwalked through life, never taking willed action, never developing their “potential.” To counter such inertia, one had to identify one’s goals and then act on them. In his 1986 interview with The New Yorker Kirstein said that he learned from Gurdjieff
the idea of behaving as if something were true even if it wasn’t, and using as a kind of target or magnet a notion that if you could imagine a situation as if it were true, as if we had a theatre, as if there were a ballet company,…it became more and more precise.
In that interview and again in Mosaic he sketches in some of the rules that Gurdjieff taught in support of the “as if” principle: one should question oneself constantly; one should push toward “extreme situations,” situations involving risk and even pain; one should recognize and embrace suffering, since it is necessary for growth.
Some of this sounds like est or any of the other yes-you-can therapies that multiplied across the United States in the Sixties and Seventies, and as with those therapies, or any therapy, it is possible that the conversion had less to do with the exact nature of the teaching than with the age and state of mind of the pupil. “I met [Gurdjieff] at a peak of disorientation,” Kirstein writes, “when many choices appeared open, while none commanded. By his canny proposals I felt released.” In other words, Gurdjieff liberated him into action. It may also have helped that the “exercises” at the school involved dancing; this probably seemed to him another sign. When Kirstein met Gurdjieff, he was already fascinated by ballet. Six years later, Balanchine’s boat docked in New York harbor, and Kirstein’s life changed permanently. When something like that happens to us, we like to assign a cause, and Gurdjieff is. Kirstein’s cause. In his writings on dance he has often described ballet as an “extreme” situation. Ballet dancers, he says, are “committed to hazard.” In other words, they are good Gurdjieffians.
More important historically than Kirstein’s link to Gurdjieff was his encounter with Balanchine. In what is already the golden legend of Kirstein and Balanchine, one of the best-loved miracles is that Kirstein, on his trip to Paris in 1933, had the foresight to hire Balanchine, who at that point was far less respected than others of Diaghilev’s ex-choreographers—for example, Léonide Massine. Therefore it came as an unpleasant surprise when Richard Buckle, in his 1988 biography of Balanchine, claimed that Kirstein might actually have preferred Massine. Using what seems to have been the manuscript version of Kirstein’s 1933 diary—Kirstein, who in 1973 published an edited version of the diary,6 apparently let Buckle consult the original—Buckle quoted the young Kirstein praising Massine rapturously, Balanchine far more reservedly, and agreeing with someone that “Balanchine was much less serious than Massine.” “If Kirstein had had unlimited means…,” Buckle concluded, “he might well have decided that Massine was the right man.”
To believe that, one would have to see the rest of the original diary. Already three years earlier, in a 1930 essay on the Diaghilev company for Hound & Horn, Kirstein had characterized Massine as “the first of the ‘clever’ choreographers”—those responsible for plunging the Ballets Russes of the early Twenties into a sort of empty chic—and described Balanchine as leading ballet out of that dry zone “into a revivified, purer, cleaner classicism.” Furthermore, if Kirstein, during his stay in Paris, suffered some confusion over what he should do, this is no surprise, considering the state of the European ballet world at that time, with rival companies, each led by ex-Diaghilevians, competing ferociously for Diaghilev’s audience. Heading the recently formed Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo was Massine. Directing the august Paris Opera Ballet was Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s former boyfriend (as was Massine) and a fledgling choreographer. Meanwhile, all Balanchine had was the post of choreographer at a one-year enterprise, Les Ballets 1933, that a rich Englishman, Edward James, had put together in order to provide a showcase for—and thereby prop up his failing marriage to—the Austrian dancer/actress Tilly Losch.
Furthermore, Balanchine was ill; he had had tuberculosis since his teens, and one of his lungs was collapsed. As Kirstein went around Paris, calling on various people connected with the ballet, most of them warned him off Balanchine. Christian Bérard, who was working with Balanchine at Les Ballets 1933, said that he was “entirely mysterious, invisible offstage,… slightly mad; really cares nothing for the ballet; is only interested in playing the piano.” Pavel Tchelitchev told Kirstein to forget the whole ballet thing: “Toe dancing was finished.” Tamara Toumanova’s mother told him that Balanchine was finished; he would be dead in two years. Romola Nijinsky said the same thing—her trance-medium had told her.
Kirstein, as he relates in the published version of his 1933 diary (the source of the above quotations), wandered around Paris is deep confusion, waiting for a sign from heaven. Instead he got a sign from Balanchine, to whom he was finally introduced. Balanchine had no prospects in Europe; when Kirstein mentioned the American project, Balanchine said he was willing. The deal was concluded in a matter of weeks. So the two men did not speed across the globe to each other; they stumbled toward each other, both probably wishing they had better prospects.
It is possible, however, that for Kirstein in 1933, the choice of which choreographer was not as crucial as it seems to us today. Our notion of a choreographer as sole creator of a dance show, sole leader of a dance company, is based on a phenomenon that occurred later, the rise of the great mid-century choreographers: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, above all, Balanchine. The kind of position that Balanchine eventually carved out for himself—total control, artistic and otherwise, over a company of a hundred dancers that was not a government institution, not a state opera house—such power had never been achieved before in the history of dance, and it gave the word “choreographer” new meaning. In the Twenties and Thirties, the situation was different. Diaghilev bought and sold choreographers. Indeed, if he had to, he did without a choreographer, or a good one. His idea of ballet was always the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total-art show in which choreography was no more important, and often less, than libretto, score, and décor.
This is the kind of ballet on which Kirstein was raised, and which he intended to produce. His décors would be by “independent easel painters”; his ballets would have strong, exciting libretti, about American life. In a 1933 letter to his friend A. Everett Austin—a letter pleading for the funds to bring Balanchine over—he outlined the productions he was considering: Pocahontas, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby Dick, Custer’s Last Stand. (This last, he wrote, would be “after Currier and Ives, [with] the circling Indians; corps de ballet shooting at the chief dancers in the center. Ponies.”
Today, the idea of Balanchine’s creating such ballets seems absurd. It did not then. Both with the Diaghilev company and with Les Ballets 1933, Balanchine was accustomed to being handed detailed libretti, and he probably listened patiently to this enthusiastic American, with his ponies. Since his teens, however, he had been working toward a new type of ballet: no libretto, no set, just music and dancing. That type of ballet he eventually established as the norm at New York City Ballet—indeed, in the United States—but it was not what Kirstein expected or, in the beginning, wanted, and the transition was no doubt rocky. An example is the well-known story of the costumes for the 1946 Four Temperaments. The designer was the surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann, and the costumes he delivered were surrealist indeed. “I had a boulder on my head—a blob,” recalled NYCB dancer Francisco Moncion, who was part of the original cast. The costume for “Melancholic,” Moncion said, looked like an Eskimo Pie. Other dancers wore blinkers, tubes, bandages. At the dress rehearsal, Balanchine took one look at these outfits, procured a pair of scissors, and began cutting things off. One wonders what Kirstein thought as he watched the surgery take place. (It was his friend Tchelitchev who had suggested Seligmann.) Soon afterward, The Four Temperaments was recostumed in leotards, and from then on many of Balanchine’s ballets were dressed only in leotards or plain tunics. Very few had libretti.
In truth, the two men who together founded New York City Ballet had very different notions of dance. Balanchine took his inspiration from music; Kirstein cared little about music. Balanchine’s idea of ballet was lyrical and visionary; Kirstein’s was visual and narrative. (Once, Kirstein recalls, he invited Balanchine to go to a museum. “No, thanks,” Balanchine replied. “I’ve been to a museum.”) As Balanchine went ahead with his idea, Kirstein was able to participate less and less in the making of the ballets. Soon, as he put it bluntly in his New Yorker interview, “There was nothing except what [George] wished.”
What Kirstein did then was to manage the institution of New York City Ballet, which, together with his other services to the field—writing, editing, fundraising, directing the School of American Ballet, helping regional companies—meant that in large measure he managed the institution of ballet in America. Furthermore, in his writing he explicated and celebrated Balanchine’s vision, the vision that had supplanted his own. The primary job of dance critics in this century has been to show how “pure dance” nevertheless has meaning, how it does tell a story, but in a different way. Kirstein, partly perhaps because he had to explain this matter to himself, was in a good position to explain it to others. “The subject of Balanchine’s ballets,” he wrote in 1952 in The Classic Ballet,
apart from love (of music, of the human body, of human beings), is the physical act or presence of the dance itself…. But he has also defined an intensely personal manner…. His unmistakable signature is in his masterful designs for tenderness, regret of loss, mystery, exuberance, and human consideration.
Nor was Balanchine the only beneficiary of Kirstein’s acquired wisdom. Perhaps his finest book was the 1975 Nijinsky Dancing, a study of how that unlucky genius evolved, from movement alone, metaphors for the profoundest human truths. Kirstein may have hated abstraction in painting, but he learned to love it in dance. He crossed a bridge, and that, not the crap-shoot in Paris, is the miracle of the Kirstein/Balanchine story. If, in his writings, Kirstein stresses selflessness, he has earned the right.
Not all of this is in Mosaic—as I said, the book ends in 1933—but it is there in the mind of the aging man meditating on his youth. Unlike some of Kirstein’s earlier memoirs, Mosaic also includes a good deal of intimate material, particularly on the stage of his life, just after his graduation from college, when he tried to shed his Harvard manners by plunging into New York’s low life—dressing at the Army-Navy store, taking boxing lessons, falling in love with sailors. There is a long chapter on his love affair with a seaman—Carl Carlsen, who wanted to write short stories for Hound & Horn—and his dream of shipping out with him. (“I would teach Carl how to write, while he taught me how to live”—a familiar fantasy.) The Carlsen chapter is touching, but Kirstein’s orotund prose style, so eloquent in other settings, is ill-suited to tender matters. Perhaps sensing this, he now and then takes his prose to the Army-Navy store, but when he does so, he seems embarrassed. (On an exjockey who worked briefly for Hound & Horn: “He had a tight little ass, a svelte manner, and was eager to sweat for a dingbat organ named Hound & Horn.”) This mix of high and low is part of him, however, and a large part of what made him successful. Lofty visions, practical dealings: that’s how he got so much done.
The post-mortem books on the Balanchine/Kirstein enterprise are now coming out. By far the most searching of them is the new Following Balanchine by Robert Garis, who spent his career as an English professor at Wellesley. Garis grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the child of seriously Baptist parents. “Do you really, really feel Jesus in your heart?” his father would ask him. Curiously, Garis came to apply this question to his experience of dance. He saw his first Balanchine ballet in 1945. Thereafter, he tracked Balanchine’s work year by year, for forty years, always asking himself, what did he really feel about these ballets? Soon to his self-questioning he added a method, learned from the famously argumentative music critic B.H. Haggin, who became his mentor and friend. Haggin’s way of appraising a piece of music was to treat it as if it were a series of choices on the part of the composer, “as if one were following a mind thinking.” Garis adopted the same method; hence the highly unusual approach of his book. It is a study of Balanchine’s work, but by way of being a study of the processes of Garis’s mind—the promptings, the doubts, the sudden flashes of vision—as he studies what he takes to be the processes of Balanchine’s mind.
Garis is at his best when he feels that Balanchine has posed him a question—in other words, made a choice that Garis doesn’t understand. One such question had to do with Balanchine’s hiring of Violette Verdy in 1958. This French ballerina, though a superb classical dancer, seemed the very antithesis of the kind of objectivity, or freedom from stage manner, that Balanchine was inculcating in his troupe at that time. She punctuated points; she communicated with the audience; she poured on the charm. Such demonstrativeness was typical of European ballet, but how was Balanchine going to incorporate it into the purer, cleaner style—what he saw as an American style—that he was then developing?
For the better part of a chapter, Garis meditates on Verdy’s way of performing and its divergence from the NYCB norm. Her musicality, for example:
She demonstrated what she was doing by unusually explicit…inflections—of rubato, of attack and emphasis, and of other ways of articulating the events in a dance structure. She led your eye along the curve in which the musical energy was propelling the dancing, she showed you the distinct episodes happening along that curve—where the middle was, when the finale was coming.
In doing so, she gave the dances a unique urgency:
There is a special drama… created when one becomes aware of a sense of motive in itself, which has the effect, almost, of naming it—when, for instance, to one’s awareness of the inventiveness with which Balanchine brings the ballerina on the stage in the first movement of Symphony in C, Verdy’s inflection added a slight pressure that let one consciously and pleasurably name the event one was watching: “the ballerina’s entrance.”
As for how Balanchine was going to use all this explicitness, the answer is of course that he molded it for his purposes. More important than the answer is the question, for it sends Garis deep into his viewing experience, and the ideas he surfaces with—the curve of the musical energy, the implicit drama of an entrance—are matters that lie at the very heart of dance.
Another question that Garis asks himself concerns Balanchine’s collaboration with Stravinsky, a coming together that produced several masterpieces—Apollo, Agon, Symphony in Three Movements—together with Jeu de Cartes, Le Baiser de la Fée, Danses Concertantes, Orpheus, Firebird, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, and many other ballets. One of the foremost pieties of the NYCB legend is that the relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky was uniquely warm and trusting, with the two Russian exiles—arguably the two greatest artists of the twentieth century—sitting around drinking vodka and plotting ballets that would rock the world. The story is the more appealing in that it gives us a young Balanchine. He was twenty-two years Stravinsky’s junior, and he learned a great deal from the composer, as he acknowledged. Indeed, by his account, it was under the influence of a Stravinsky score, Apollo, that he achieved his artistic maturity. That highly disciplined score, he wrote, “seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I too could eliminate,” and this was a turning point in his life. So Stravinsky and Balanchine were, in a way, father and son—a nice story.
According to Garis, however, it may have been a father-son relationship of a different sort. Characteristically, he begins with a question about Balanchine’s “choices.” If the collaboration was so smooth, why did Balanchine drop from repertory so many of his Stravinsky ballets: Jeu de Cartes, Danses Concertantes, Le Baiser de la Fée? And why did he ruin others, in later years, by way of revising them? Why did he “trash” the beautiful pas de deux of his 1949 Firebird? Why did he lop off the prologue to Apollo and also change the finale, deleting its tragic note? From these decisions of Balanchine’s, together with Stravinsky’s statements about Balanchine’s work, Garis develops a theory that the relationship between the two men was very tense, with Stravinsky insisting that the job of a choreographer was simply to reflect what was already in the score—as if, Garis suggests, the composer were to say, “Here, have that danced, please”—and Balanchine fighting for the right to create something of his own, not independent of, but still other than, the music. Garis describes a photograph of the two men during the 1937 Jeu de Cartes rehearsals. In it, he says, Stravinsky dominates:
He is leaning forward impatiently with his hands clasped in front of him, looking like an irritable French millionaire whose time is worth a lot of money. Balanchine, close to the camera and eyeing it uneasily, nervous at the thought that this moment is being recorded, looks affectingly young and tense and powerless.
(I wish the book had reproduced this photo, but it includes another one, undated, that seems to show the same thing. It is painful to look at.) In Jeu de Cartes Balanchine let Stravinsky have his way; the composer vetoed whole sections of the choreography. Later, Balanchine fought harder for his autonomy and also, as Garis sees it, now and then turned with vengeance on ballets that reminded him of how that autonomy had been threatened.
The story has a quasi-happy ending. In his remarks on the 1963 Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Stravinsky seemed at last to acknowledge Balanchine’s independent genius: “The choreography emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware…and the performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.” This is only a partial acknowledgement, however—he still sees himself as the architect of the ballet—and, if Garis is right, it did not heal the wound. It didn’t prevent Balanchine, twelve years later (and seven years after Stravinsky’s death), from decapitating Apollo.
The account sounds true. It may also have a special meaning for Garis. For years, as he relates in Following Balanchine, he was deeply under the sway of B.H. Haggin, a man who, if possible, was more insistent on his authority than Stravinsky. “I was accustomed,” Garis writes, “to believing without rancor that whatever he liked I would eventually come to like.” If he felt there was a ballet on which they would not see eye to eye, he stayed away from it, for “disagreeing with him [was] a task of considerable anxiety.” In the late Sixties, after twenty-five years of friendship, he finally quarreled with Haggin, and they never spoke again.
If the Stravinsky chapter is tinged with personal feeling, the rest of the book tells us much more about Garis’s personality: his obsessiveness about NYCB, his competitiveness with other critics, his admittedly eccentric notion—the fruit of his “choice”-tracking—that he was actually collaborating with Balanchine. Such subjectivity is not rare among ballet fans, however. Also, because Garis is so intent on his own responses, he is candid about them. He confesses unfashionable sentiments, for example, that Balanchine’s hard-edged “leotard” ballets, then as now the high-brow choice, were the ones that interested him the least. And when he missed the point of something crucial—for example, when he failed to take the measure of Tanaquil LeClercq’s genius until her career was ended by polio—he admits this. If he didn’t feel Jesus in his heart, he doesn’t say he did. Most important, his personal emphasis never enfeebles his dance criticism. He is able to write about the drama of the ballets with clarity and yet never violate the essential ambiguity of that drama.
Garis was part of a particular group of well-read, articulate people, many of them artists and writers, who gathered around Balanchine’s enterprise in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and he tells us something about this crowd: how they conducted their friendships at the ballet, how they huddled together at intermission, comparing their responses and arguing over the respective merits of this and that ballerina. My one complaint about the book is that it doesn’t offer more of this material. Garis gives us only glancing portraits, often uncomplimentary, of a few of the principals: the much-revered dance critic and poet Edwin Denby, whom he portrays as an oblique and calculating man; Haggin, with his dogmatism and his bullying. He also touches on Kirstein, whom he seems to have regarded as little more than the company’s PR man, though he adds that in this view he may have been influenced by Haggin. (Kirstein had apparently interfered with some copy that Haggin submitted to Hound & Horn. He was thereby placed, for ever after, on Haggin’s long enemies list.)
But Garis’s brevity on the subject of the goings-on around the company is part of his empiricism, his determination to tell us only what he himself experienced, and in sticking to that subject, he has given us something invaluable. As art-producing organizations go, New York City Ballet was highly unusual. For a large portion of the audience, it was not just a ballet company; it was a central event in their lives. Garis was one of those people, and though the inwardness of his book is unique in writings on Balanchine—indeed, on ballet—it is nevertheless representative of the effect the company had. Under Balanchine, NYCB was a mental adventure of the profoundest kind. The adventure is over now, but Garis testifies to the happiness it gave. Here are the closing words of his book:
Throughout the Fifties and Sixties I could tell that the dancing at New York City Ballet was getting better because I was getting happier as I watched it. And I knew that Balanchine wanted this. Even his applause machines were works of high art. There was a period when the finale of Coppélia was my favorite thing in ballet. And at the end of a particularly great performance of Symphony in C, when fifty dancers filled the stage with disciplined, free vitality, I felt an exhilarated happiness. My friends felt it too, we defined it in the same way, and we agreed about its value. When that exhilaration failed to come—for it did not come at every performance—we agreed about that too, for this happiness was too important to fake. It was one of the great things in our lives, and one of the great things in the century.
November 16, 1995
His first novel, Flesh Is Heir (1932), has been brought back into print as part of the “Lost American Fiction” series published by Southern Illinois University Press. ↩
In later years he gave the library several thousand more items, and since many of them were fragile, he also donated a conservation laboratory. Recently he deeded his papers and also his copyrights to the Dance Collection. ↩
The full run of Dance Index was reprinted in 1970. It is available from Ayer Company Publishers, North Stratford, New Hampshire. ↩
Though Mosaic is Kirstein’s first formal memoir, he has made several previous passes at autobiography: Flesh Is Heir, his first novel (“It was all too literally true,” he later said); The New York City Ballet (Knopf, 1973), a memoir in the form of a company history; Quarry (Twelvetrees, 1986), a memoir in the form of a tour through his personal art collection. He has also published a number of forthrightly autobiographical essays. Some can be found in his 1991 collection By With To & From, edited by Nicholas Jenkins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Others, early versions of Mosaic‘s chapters, were published in Raritan in 1982 and 1983. ↩
It first appeared as the introduction to Portrait of Mr. B: Photographs of George Balanchine (Viking, 1984) and was later reprinted in By With To & From. ↩
“For John Martin: Entries from an Early Diary,” Dance Perspectives 54 (Summer 1973). It is reprinted as “From an Early Diary” in By With To & From. ↩