Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern: A Short Biography and Syllabus

Upon the occasion of the newly-opened exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, below is a short introduction to his remarkable life and work, and a list of writings by and about him.

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) possessed a seemingly unlimited reserve of energy and ideas, and the quantity of his many unrealized endeavors is as noteworthy as his successes. It was in this expansiveness of imagination and willingness to put his artistic convictions into action that his true genius lay, no matter the obstacles or potential for failure. He thrived when at his busiest and was constantly engaged in multiple projects, all the while dreaming up new ones for the future. It is difficult to say exactly whence this disposition arose. To some, it was in part a product of his family’s wealth and connections—the unfettered mindset of individuals with significant financial resources at their disposal. Others posit psychological origins, pointing to his history of manic episodes and bipolar tendencies, or argue that he was able to get by on very little sleep. Whatever the cause of his passion, Kirstein was one of the most active and generous advocates on behalf of modernist expression in the twentieth century, in virtually all of its generic manifestations.

Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York, and was raised among the wealthy elite of Boston. His mother, Rose Kirstein née Stein was from a prosperous Rochester family; his father Louis Kirstein was a successful businessman—most notably as a partner in the Filene department store company—and a dedicated philanthropist whose sense of noblesse oblige would greatly influence his son. His parents, as well as his sister Mina Curtiss and brother George Kirstein were generous supporters, financially and personally, of his many artistic and organizational endeavors throughout his life. Kirstein attended the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts, and subsequently enrolled at Harvard University, graduating in 1930.

Kirstein’s parents were relatively unobservant Jews, although active in Jewish political and philanthropic causes, and his religious upbringing was nominal. In high school he was introduced to the practices of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, who would prove a strong influence, especially in Kirstein’s early adulthood. In his later years he became interested in Roman Catholicism, although he never took any formal steps toward conversion. In 1941 Kirstein married Fidelma Cadmus, sister of his friend, the painter Paul Cadmus, and was a devoted husband until her death in 1991. He maintained numerous passionate relationships with men throughout his life, both sexual and nonsexual, but never explicitly identified himself as homosexual.

During Kirstein’s time at Harvard, his primary interests were literature and the visual arts. He wrote several books of poetry and an autobiographical novel, Flesh is Heir, published in 1932. Of more lasting significance than his own work was the literary quarterly Hound & Horn, which he co-founded in 1927 with Varian Fry and R. P. Blackmur. Modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion, the journal would in its seven years of existence publish original work by American modernist writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and James Agee. Kirstein himself contributed two major articles on ballet, his earliest writings on dance.

During this same period, Kirstein and fellow students Edward M. M. Warburg and John Walker III, under the influence of Harvard professor Paul Sachs, organized the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The Society mounted several shows of work by living artists, which met with indifferent to indignant reception among Boston’s conservative art patrons. Although short-lived, the Society provided the organisational nucleus of the institution that would become the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Although he never functioned in a leadership capacity, Kirstein would maintain close ties to MoMA. He was responsible for numerous exhibitions and the accompanying catalogues, including a 1932 exhibition of contemporary mural painting and a 1948 retrospective of Polish artist Elie Nadelman. He would continually advocate for the acquisition of more work by American artists and helped broker many relationships between the museum and artists whom he championed. In 1939 he donated his significant private collection of books, prints and dance memorabilia to the museum to establish the Dance Archives, the first such scholarly resource in the United States.

Kirstein had a long interest in ballet, particularly in the Ballets Russes and its founder and artistic director, Serge Diaghilev, on whom he modeled his own career as an impresario. He made yearly visits to Europe beginning in the 1920s and saw performances of Firebird and ballets by Léonide Massine and Balanchine. Through his friendship with Romola Nijinsky—for whom he served as ghost-writer for significant portions of her biography of her husband, Vaslav Nijinsky—Kirstein gained access to the circle of Russian émigré dancers and choreographers, including Balanchine. With Balanchine somewhat institutionally adrift since Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, Kirstein found the choreographer receptive to the idea of coming to the United States to start a new company. Kirstein brought Balanchine to the United States in October 1933.

In the fifteen years following Balanchine’s arrival, the organization envisioned by Kirstein would assume many forms. Crucial to the enterprise in all of its incarnations, however, was the continuous presence of a training institution, the School of American Ballet (SAB), which opened its doors at a studio on Madison Avenue shortly after Balanchine’s arrival. Students from SAB first performed in June 1934 at a private performance at the estate of Felix Warburg in White Plains, New York—including the ballet Serenade, the first original work created by Balanchine in America. The company made its debut as the American Ballet in March 1935 at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway, garnering the notice of the new head of the Metropolitan Opera, Edward Johnson, who invited the group to become the Met’s resident ballet troupe. The arrangement would prove uncongenial and lasted only three years, but it did allow the fledgling organization to mount several significant performances: an all-Stravinsky program—conducted by the composer himself—that featured the American premiere of Balanchine’s Apollo­; and a dance-intensive staging of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice designed by the artist Pavel Tchelitchev, of whom Kirstein was a devoted patron. Kirstein articulated his frustrations with the Met, as well as his larger critique of the hegemony of Russian ballet in America, in his 1938 pamphlet Blast at Ballet.

Concurrent with the American Ballet, in 1936 Kirstein formed a second troupe called Ballet Caravan, conceived as a summer touring company (and confidently posited in Blast at Ballet as an antidote for the degenerate state of ballet in America). The Caravan allowed Kirstein to pursue more directly his vision of a company with a distinctly American profile, and afforded him an active, all-encompassing role as producer, allowing him to commission original music and designs from artists of his choosing. The dancers themselves created the choreography, in collaboration with a distinguished roster of American writers, composers, and artists, including Paul Cadmus, Ben Shahn, Aaron Copland, Paul Bowles, Florine Stettheimer and Virgil Thomson. Although the troupe did not survive the 1930s, the Caravan provided important exposure and choreographic experience for dancers such as Ruthanna Boris, Lew Christensen, William Dollar, and Eugene Loring. The Caravan was also notable for being less focused on classical ballet, and organisationally and aesthetically represented a rapprochement by Kirstein with the world of modern dance, towards which he was generally unsympathetic. True to its name, the Caravan was always somewhat makeshift in its organization and execution, and only two of its ballets—Billy the Kid and Filling Station, for which Kirstein himself wrote the scenario—garnered significant critical and popular acclaim.

In 1941 Kirstein and Balanchine formed the American Ballet Caravan, combining their two previous ventures for an extended tour of Latin America, funded by the State Department’s office of Inter-American Affairs, headed by Kirstein’s long-time friend and patron Nelson Rockefeller. The goal of the tour was to promote goodwill and counteract the region’s growing pro-Nazi sentiment. Kirstein returned to South America the following year, again at the request of Rockefeller. His official mission was to purchase new work by Latin American artists to augment the collections of the Museum of Modern Art—of which Rockefeller was President—but the real purpose was to gather off-the-record political intelligence.

Following a stint in the army, Kirstein’s next major undertaking was Ballet Society, created in 1946 and conceived as a non-profit membership-based subscription organization. As with Ballet Caravan, Kirstein held primary responsibility for both artistic and administrative planning and commissioned librettos, music, scenery and choreography from a wide range of artists, many of whom had been involved in his previous endeavours. Although Balanchine was not a central institutional force behind Ballet Society, he was a key collaborator for two of its most important works: The Four Temperaments, to a score by Paul Hindemith, commissioned personally by Balanchine several years earlier, and featuring elaborate costumes by Kurt Seligmann (subsequently abandoned in favour of simple practice clothes); and Orpheus, to a newly-commissioned score by Stravinsky, with designs by Isamu Noguchi (a frequent collaborator of Martha Graham) and starring Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clerq, Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion. Although its performances were critically acclaimed, Ballet Society was never self-supporting, despite its non-profit status and substantial personal contributions from Kirstein and other patrons. In 1948, however, when its demise seemed inevitable, the chair of the executive committee of New York City Center, Morton Baum, invited Ballet Society to become the resident ballet company of the city-operated venue. Thus the Kirstein and Balanchine enterprise finally achieved institutional permanence under the new identity of the New York City Ballet.

Although City Center provided the company with a more stable institutional base and covered day-to-day operating costs, there were few funds available for the creation of new work, and Kirstein continued to support new productions from his own funds and by soliciting donations from patrons. In 1952, Kirstein became Managing Director of City Center, and during his tenure secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support new opera and ballet productions. A committed leftist throughout his life, Kirstein was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and participated in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, later writing a poem about the experience. He helped numerous African-American dancers, especially men, gain admission to SAB in the 1940s and 1950s, and supported NYCB principal dancer Arthur Mitchell in founding the Dance Theater of Harlem.

As a member of the Lincoln Center planning committee Kirstein was instrumental in ensuring the company’s permanent home at the New York State Theater and SAB’s inclusion in the complex. In 1959 the Ford Foundation, at Kirstein’s urging, made a major grant to SAB that made possible national audition tours and an expanded scholarship program, effectively transforming the organisation into America’s leading training academy for ballet. This position was further strengthened in 1963 when Kirstein secured a second major commitment from Ford, a multi-million grant in support of a half dozen American ballet companies, the bulk of which went to support NYCB and SAB. Until his death, Kirstein served as the guiding institutional force of both organizations and of dance in the United States more broadly.

Alongside and frequently in tandem with his undertakings, Kirstein was a prolific writer, as notable for his many published books, articles, program notes and prefaces as for his prodigious personal correspondence and diaries. As a critic, historian and collector he played an essential role in the professionalization of the study of dance in the United States, not simply as an artistic practice but as a subject of intellectual study. As the founder of Dance Index, Kirstein oversaw the first scholarly journal in America devoted to dance. His work on Nijinsky helped to secure the dancer’s place in the history of ballet as more than an idiosyncratic performer and reasserted the place of male dancers in the history—and future—of ballet. His historical and critical writings are at once indispensible scholarly references and important primary sources in their own right, documenting the development of ballet and dance in the twentieth century. In addition to his donations to MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his personal papers and other collections constitute some of the most significant archival holdings of the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Selected Writings

Kirstein, Lincoln. (1983) Ballet: Bias & Belief—Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1991) By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, Ed. Nicholas Jenkins, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1935) Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Reprinted 1987, with an appreciation by Nancy Reynolds, New York: Dance Horizons, Inc.

—. (1994) Mosaic: Memoirs, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

—. (1970) Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, New York: Praeger.

—. (1975) Nijinsky Dancing, New York: Knopf.

—. (2009) Program Notes, Ed. Randall Bourscheidt, New York: Eakins Press Foundation and Alliance for the Arts.

—. (1978) Thirty Years: the New York City Ballet, New York: Knopf.

References and Further Reading

Duberman, Martin. (2007) The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, New York: Knopf.

Garafola, Lynn, Ed., with Eric Foner. (1999) Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Columbia University Press.

Garafola, Lynn. (2005) “Dollars for Dance: Lincoln Kirstein, City Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation” in Lynn Garafola (2005) Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 305–16.

Harris, Andrea. (2017) Making Ballet American: Modernism Before and Beyond Balanchine, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kayafas, Peter, Ed. (2007) Lincoln Kirstein: A Bibliography of Published Writings, 1922–1996, New York: Eakins Press Foundation.

Reynolds, Nancy. (1999) “In His Image: Diaghilev and Lincoln Kirstein” in Lynn Garafola, Ed., with Nancy Van Norman Baer, The Ballets Russes and Its World, New Haven: Yale University Press.

—. (1977) Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet, New York: Dial Press.

Steichen, James. (2018) Balanchine and Kirstein’s American Enterprise, New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Nicholas Fox. (1992) Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943, New York: Knopf.