Balanchine Mythbusters: “But first, a school” Edition

Dear Dr. Steichen:

“I got into an argument with a friend about Balanchine’s famous quote, ‘But first, a school.’ From the materials in your book it seems to me that the school was an idea of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg, and Balanchine went along with it rather than spearheading it. I haven’t been able to find any source for the famous quote, other than a text by Kirstein from many years after the fact. Do you know anything about this?”

–Miro Magloire, New Chamber Ballet

Dear Miro:

Beware, for with your question you are are dangerously close to touching the third rail of Balanchine politics, or put differently, your question calls into question one of the most treasured beliefs of the Church of Balanchine.

Despite what you may have read or heard or been told, it is highly unlikely that George Balanchine uttered the phrase “But first, a school” when he was introduced to Lincoln Kirstein in the summer of 1933 in London. And if he did utter any version of the phrase in the limited English he commanded at the time, it was most certainly not posited as a firm ultimatum or condition for his emigration to the United States to help found a new ballet enterprise.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back who might still be talking amongst themselves: George Balanchine never said “But first, a school.”

But why, you ask, have I been told this so many times, and why is it held as such a treasured belief and featured prominently in marketing materials and websites? That is indeed the question, and the answer is complicated.

Like many things associated with Balanchine, the phrase “But first, a school” has taken on a life of its own, recounted in dozens if not hundreds of published accounts over the nine decades since it was allegedly first uttered. In Bernard Taper’s biography of Balanchine we find one of the more canonical retellings of how and when “But first, a school” was said. The scene is 1933 London, where a young Lincoln Kirstein has been scouting out choreographers who might be induced to come to America to help create a new ballet organization. As Taper retells the tale, when Kirstein is finally introduced to Balanchine (via Romola Nijinsky), he throws everything out that he can in his pitch: “his admiration for Balanchine’s creations, his grand dreams for the ballet in America, his lofty ideals for the future of the art, his ardent hope that Balanchine would join him in the endeavor.” 

In the face of this onslaught of ideas, Balanchine, according to Taper, said that he was certainly open to the idea and the new possibilities that America would open up, and Kirstein in turn promised by the time Balanchine was forty years old they would have a company with its theater. But to this Balanchine replied sagely and somewhat cryptically “But first, a school.” That evening, allegedly responding to Balanchine’s pronouncement, Kirstein in a heartfelt and feverish letter to one of his American partners in the enterprise lays out his plan to create a school that would lead to the creation of an American ballet company. 

It’s worth noting that the title of the chapter of Taper’s biography in which this scene is depicted is called, yes, you guessed it, ”But First a School.”

The problem is, there are no definitive contemporary primary sources that can verify that Balanchine uttered this phrase, and Balanchine and Kirstein themselves are the only sources for the phrase and the scene in which it was uttered. Balanchine did not keep a diary in which he wrote “Today I told Lincoln Kirstein I would come to America, but told the guy, ‘But first a school.’” There is no correspondence in which Balanchine says as much, or no account in any press outlet that references the phrase or idea behind it.  

Similarly, the copious diaries and correspondence produced by Lincoln Kirstein, who was on the receiving end of the alleged comment, contain nothing that remotely resembles the phrase, neither is there anything resembling it in accounts of his many subsequent interactions with Balanchine. In legal terms, all sources for this quote amount to hearsay now that Balanchine and Kirstein are no longer with us.

In fact, the uncertain origins of the phrase have already been noted by people besides me. Jennifer Dunning in the opening pages of her history of the School of American Ballet–entitled But First A School–admits that any exact source of the utterance is lost to history. The website of the Balanchine Foundation itself includes a notable hedge in its biographical timeline, stating that the phrase “is famously reported” to have been said by Balanchine to Kirstein.

What is more, even if Balanchine did utter this phrase or some version of it, the historical record indicates that the true champion of the organization that would come to be known as the School of American Ballet and still serves as the training institution for the New York City Ballet, was Lincoln Kirstein. 

Indeed, what is documented in multiple written sources, both published and unpublished (which are laid out in granular detail in my dissertation and book) is that the dynamic mythologized by the “But first, a school phrase” was actually completely reversed. By this I mean to say: Lincoln Kirstein, and not Balanchine, was the person who knew that a school was the key to the creation of a new American ballet enterprise and made it a central focus of his planning and execution. Kirstein made the school part of his pitch to Balanchine (not the other way around) and Balanchine acquiesced to the plan because it would give him the chance to keep producing new choreographic work, his true passion and interest.

Kirstein did get his way and a school was made the centerpiece and start of his collaborative enterprise with Balanchine, and after a false-start in Hartford, Connecticut, the School of the American Ballet opened in New York at the very end of 1933, a couple months after Balanchine’s emigration from Europe. Balanchine made it clear through his words and actions, however, that making new work–like, you know, Serenade?–was his focus and he had no interest in the daily grind of barre routines or center work. In fact Balanchine’s focus on choreography (not pedagogy) and insistence on creating and presenting new work resulted in not just internal strife between him and Kirstein but less than ideal debuts for the performing arm of the enterprise, a company called the American Ballet. 

And yes, when I said “School of the American Ballet” in the paragraph above that was not a misprint, for that’s what the school was initially called. In other words, a performing arm was part of the enterprise from the very start–and this was Balanchine’s primary if not sole focus–even if it proved not a wise decision and the American Ballet would fold after only three years with not much to show for it. And indeed, throughout the first decade of Balanchine and Kirstein’s ballet endeavors, it is well documented that Balanchine’s focus was always on performance and not teaching. Other notable teachers were recruited to join the ranks of the school to fill this void, among them Pierre Vladimirov and Muriel Stuart, and for a brief time Erick Hawkins before he became partners with Martha Graham. Kirstein never lost focus on the school, however, rightfully understanding its importance over the long haul.

Why the focus on “But first, a school” and why has it been so important to insist that Balanchine said it? It’s a much better story of course, and sets up Balanchine to be the sole creative progenitor of the enterprise, the father of its school and creative choreographic genius all in one package. In religious terms it recalls the opening of the Gospel of John in which “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God” and everything flows from there. In more secular terms, it has echoes of Shakespeare’s memorable phrase about the performative powers of monarchical speech: “Such is the breath of kings.” This origin story is certainly easier than acknowledging the messier realities of the precarious early history of the organization and the all too human frailties and mistakes of its founders. It’s not as fun or awe-inspiring to to acknowledge that in the 1930s Balanchine was a young man lacking a certain amount of judgment and like most talented artists wanted to focus mostly on his own creative work, and he was open to the idea of a school if that’s what his American patrons wanted to do and if it could get his work back on stage.

Balanchine as the sole source and inspiration allows the School of American Ballet to claim a purity of lineage, and the New York City Ballet for its part can in turn stand as the ultimate vessel for his hallowed training organization. To be sure, SAB and NYCB have always nodded to Lincoln Kirstein when talking about their histories, but no one would argue that Balanchine remains the centerpiece of their collective brand. And with Balanchine having become perhaps the biggest global brand ever to exist in the history of ballet, how wonderful to be able to claim that your institutions exist all because of this one Great Man’s idea and all powerful utterance. Complicating these dynamics is the fact that Lincoln Kirstein himself was one of the purveyors of the “But first, a school” story, perhaps rightly understanding its power to create a sense of stability and even inevitability to what he knew had been an initially precarious and fragile enterprise. 

But as hard as it might be, letting go of this and other myths might allow ballet to evolve and let go of its patriarchal and monarchical instincts, in which founders and leaders are never questioned and as a result their worst tendencies can often run amok in the institutions for which they are responsible. I would argue that in large part because of the “But first, a school” mythology there was no question that after Balanchine’s death, his anointed successor Peter Martins of necessity had to be named the titular head of both “his” company and school. In the wake of Martins’ ungracious exit from both institutions, this concentration of power has at last been broken, with shared leadership across the company and school and the possibility for new transparency and accountability.

Balanchine never said “But first, a school” and thank goodness he didn’t because this founding myth does not stem from a value system that should be used to build (or rebuild) any institution. Because as much as maniacal focus and obsession (Kirstein) and genius and instinct (Balanchine) are important and deserving of respect if not awe, there is so much more that goes into healthy institutions if they are to survive, and there are even more hands and hearts needed to support them if they and the people they serve are to flourish and thrive. 

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