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Dance: The Ballet Life of a True Christian

6 minute read

By Thanksgiving week, the fall-winter season of the New York City Ballet is usually proceeding at full steam. This year the company planned to be not only performing but also celebrating its 25th anniversary. Instead, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the company’s Manhattan home, was darkened by another milestone: for the first time in the company’s history, the corps dancers and soloists were on strike. The dancers were angry not so much at management as at their fellow performers in the orchestra, who were still negotiating a new contract but were widely expected to strike after the season got under way. The dancers were not about to be rendered jobless in midseason.

Thus the anniversary was a muted one, but no less significant for that. Most of the dance world honors the company as one of America’s greatest homegrown cultural products and one of the world’s finest ballet companies.

To honor the New York City Ballet is, of course, to honor the choreographer in whose image the company has been made, George Balanchine. But it is also to honor a man who last week typically chose to remain in the background, yet is as responsible as Balanchine for what the troupe is today: Lincoln Kirstein. A tall, shambling man who helped Balanchine found the New York City Ballet in 1948, Kirstein has, as he puts it, patched it together over the years “with Band-Aids.” He has poured more than $1,000,000 of his family fortune into the venture and since 1948 has served as the company’s general director.

See Sound. The story of the Balanchine-Kirstein partnership is told by a knowledgeable source—Kirstein himself—in an elegant new book called The New York City Ballet (Knopf; $25). It boasts more than 450 color and black-and-white pictures of the company’s major performers and performances (see photos on this and facing page). Kirstein’s text is an ingenious juxtaposition of imaginary diary entries describing key events in his life in ballet—the founding of the Balanchine-directed School of American Ballet in 1934, for example—as they might have seemed at the time, and commentary from the vantage point of today. The result brilliantly documents what Balanchine meant by his ambition “to make audiences see sound and hear dancing.” It also reveals Kirstein the private man.

The son of a board chairman of Filene’s department store in Boston, Kirstein was only five when he saw The Merry Widow and contracted what Cocteau called the “red-and-gold disease” —the passion for performing arts. After arriving at Harvard, this fever increasingly focused on ballet. Later he began talking to wealthy friends about starting a company that would transplant the classical dance tradition to the exuberant American climate. He was convinced that he had found the man for the job in Balanchine, a former choreographer for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Kirstein met Balanchine for the first time in 1933, in a London kitchen, while Balanchine was touring with his own troupe. “What Balanchine thought of an anonymous youth who hi exaggerated desperation proposed an entire future career in half an hour, he did not say,” writes Kirstein.

Midas Touch. Balanchine did go to the United States, though. The first Balanchine-Kirstein company, the American Ballet, went broke while on tour in Scranton, Pa., in 1935. Thanks partly to some fast lobbying by Kirstein, the troupe was taken on as the ballet wing of the Metropolitan Opera. Three years later the company dissolved as Balanchine went off to Hollywood to choreograph such films as The Goldwyn Follies and On Your Toes, and Kirstein enlisted in the U.S. Army.

The pair got together again in 1946 to found the Ballet Society. This became the New York City Ballet in 1948, when the City Center, New York’s cultural arm organized under Mayor Fiorello La-Guardia, offered the company a home in its theater, a converted Shriners’ Temple. Balanchine and Kirstein had found the setting for their lifework.

Kirstein’s lifework, as it happens, takes in a good deal more than dance. A poet, art critic and onetime novelist, he seems to have an aesthetic Midas touch that produces quality in virtually everything he takes up. At Harvard he established and edited the magazine Hound and Horn, which from 1927-34 was among the most distinguished literary journals. The Harvard Society of Contemporary Art, which he co-founded in 1927, became the prototype for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

This broad range is what makes Kirstein, 66, something of a miracle worker behind the scenes at the New York City Ballet. He likes to say: “I’m a plumber. I just keep the thing working.” His methods are as diverse and mysterious as those of a master politician—which he resembles far more than a plumber. He frequently jets off to foreign cities to negotiate future engagements for the company, and returns brimming with enthusiasm for the music and dance of newly visited lands. Balanchine’s Bugaku (1963) was inspired in part by Kirstein’s infatuation with Japanese culture.

Kirstein would not presume to interfere with Balanchine in artistic matters, and he leaves day-to-day office problems to General Manager Betty Cage. But when he hauls his angular 6-ft. 3-in. frame into the building, everybody somehow knows he is there.

He can be kindly to a new dancer and diffident with a doorman. Yet the presence of this “towering man with a frown,” as one company member puts it, can be unpredictably explosive. He does not suffer fools gladly, which explains why there is a small legion known as “Kirstein widows”—people he no longer talks to. Among them: New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose early artistic interests he nurtured but with whom he later had differences.

Routine fund raising is not his forte, but if money is needed for a special ballet or other project, he may simply ask “Mr. B.” howmuch, then go off to get it.

Balanchine once said of Kirstein: “Lincoln is a true Christian, even though he won’t admit it. He gives you money and runs away before you can thank him.” Kirstein simply says: “We don’t talk very much. He doesn’t express himself verbally, and I can’t dance, so I leave it to him. He moves in time and space and plasticity. One of us is aesthetic, the other political. The politics involves diplomacy, p.r. and money. He is not interested in that. My pleasure is to make it possible for him to do what he wants.”

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