Lincoln Kirstein

Most noted for his hand in founding the New York City Ballet and for almost half a century its director, Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) was a visionary, a great scholar, and a distinguished critic and writer on dance and various other art forms.

Lincoln Kirstein was born to a wealthy family in Rochester, New York, on May 4, 1907. His father, Louis Kirstein, was a high-ranking executive, and eventually chairman, of Filene's Department Store. Kirstein's interest in the arts was present from a young age. When he was eight years old he created a dramatics club called "Tea for Three." He produced, wrote, and starred in all their plays and demonstrated in his organization of the club his skills as a systematic organizer. When he was 12 his mother took him and his sister to Chartres, France, where the great cathedral spurred in him a passion for windows—this later resulted in his taking a year between high school and college to work in a stained glass factory. When Kirstein was 15 he published a play in the Philips Exeter Monthly, and when he was 16 he bought his first work of art, an Ashanti figure of tulipwood that had been carved at the Wembley Empire Exhibition. That same year he spent the summer with his older sister in London and attended performances of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.


Launched Modern Art Society

Having grown up in a grand house full of antiques and artwork from all stages of history, the contrast and excitement of the modern art scene was attractive to Kirstein. He attended Harvard University in the late 1920s and there began to make his mark in the art world. At the time art museums were wary of showing modern art (or the work of living artists) because they feared that it might not be of a good enough standard and subsequently the museum would be embarrassed. Kirstein, along with two fellow undergraduates at Harvard, Edward M.M. Warburg and John Walker III, felt this risk of embarrassment to be enticing. Together they founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art to do what other museums and galleries feared— "to exhibit to the public works of living contemporary art whose qualities are still frankly debatable." This society was the first organization in the United States that presented the vast range and diversity of contemporary art on a continual basis. What made it unique was that its intent was not to cater to one individual's taste or to the development of a personal collection, but rather to focus on presenting all strains of modernism. They wanted the new voices in the art world to have a place where they could be heard. The first exhibit, which ran from February 19 to March 15, 1929, included works by such varying artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and Georgia O'Keefe, among many others.

Of the three founders of the Harvard Society, Kirstein was the one who was skilled in formulating ideas. The society was his idea, as were most of the exhibition themes and their rationales. Both imaginative and articulate, Kirstein was described by one friend as "impetuous … knowledgeable … overflowing with vitality …" and by another as "brilliant, seductive, violent … but isolated and lonely at the same time." In college he was intrigued by any art that reflected vitality, passion, and competence, and when he found something he cared about, his care was intense and vehement. He had sensitivity and awareness at the same time as boundless knowledge and energy and cared more about books, painting, and dance than about sports and socializing. His outlook was unique yet always direct and honest. This outlook was reflected in the society, for what was important was the idea of getting to the core. "To attain knowledge and beauty one must peel away the covering. The ideal was to know one's true instincts and to have the courage to be spontaneous."


Focus Shifted to Literary Magazine

While still at Harvard, in addition to the society, Kirstein and some associates began an undergraduate literary magazine called The Hound and the Horn. "Exemplary of everything that Kirstein would be involved in from that point on, it did not flaunt his name—which appeared only in small type in the list of editors." The periodical, however, had been his idea and had been largely overseen by him. The magazine included works by such now illustrious writers as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, and e.e. cummings, among others.

In November 1929, nine months after the Harvard Society's first show, the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York City. Many art critics of the time voiced the opinion that the Harvard Society had been the "germ of the Museum of Modern Art." In April 1930 the museum's trustees invited Kirstein, Warburg, and Walker to join the newly formed advisory committee. Soon after, the three young men graduated from Harvard, but only Kirstein stayed in Cambridge, where he continued to devote his energies to The Hound and the Horn and to the Harvard Society. In December 1930 and January 1931 the first Bauhaus show ever in America was installed at the Harvard Society under the guidance of Kirstein, who both wrote and designed the cover for the catalogue (although he did not cite his name as author or designer). Many exhibits later Kirstein's focus began to shift. He handed over the Harvard Society to new leaders and moved on to new endeavors.


Began American Dance Company

While visiting in Europe, he met George Balanchine and decided that America needed a ballet company all its own. He felt Balanchine to be the right person for the job of artistic director/choreographer/ballet master. In previous trips to Europe Kirstein had seen Balanchine dance and had also seen his choreography. He had been deeply inspired by the vitality and modernity of the work. With the death of Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe had largely fallen apart, and Kirstein saw this as a perfect opportunity to start a ballet company in America with Balanchine, who was also keen on the idea. With the financial support of his friends Chick Austin and Warburg, the plan was set in motion.

On December 1, 1933, the School of American Ballet opened. Among its aims was one to "preserve and further the tradition of classical theatrical dancing in order to provide adequate material for the growth of a new national art in America." In December 1934 the American Ballet Company, which was made up of the school's first-year students, made their debut performance at Warburg's estate in White Plains, New York, and shortly afterwards at the Avery Memorial Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1935 the American Ballet became a resident ballet company in New York City. In the spring of 1936 Kirstein founded another company, called Ballet Caravan, which also emerged from the School of American Ballet. It was developed as an outlet for American choreographers, composers, and designers. It toured extensively from 1936 to 1939 until World War II ended it. When the war was over, in 1946, Kirstein, along with Balanchine, formed the "Ballet Society." As well as giving ballet performances, it sponsored lectures, film shows, and publications on dance and in 1948 took under its auspices the publication Dance Index (which Kirstein had been the editor of since 1942). From the "Ballet Society" was developed the New York City Ballet, in 1948, of which Kirstein was the general director from its inception.

In developing the company, Kirstein's primary aim was to not only create an American classic ballet, but also to stage American subjects. The first truly American ballet was Billy the Kid, which was choreographed by Eugene Loring, but the "story" was written by Kirstein himself. Other notable works included Lew Christensen's Filling Station.

Despite all the innovative activities of Kirstein in college, it was the creation of this truly American ballet company, as well as his numerous books and critiques of dance concerts, that made Lincoln Kirstein a legend in his own time. He was a patron of the arts in the truest sense, as he asked for no credit or monetary reward for all that he did— his foremost concern remained presenting innovative and passionate art to the world. Still he received many accolades. Among his many lifetime honors were the United States government Medal of Freedom, New York City's Handel Medallion and the National Medal of Arts. Dance Magazine senior editor Clive Barnes wrote that Kirstein "dreamed dreams for other people and made them happen."

Kirstein was married to Fidelma Cadmus. She died in 1991. Kirstein retired as general director of the New York City Ballet in 1989 but retained the title of general director emeritus. He died on January 5, 1996 at his home in New York City of natural causes. His impact was felt after his death. As one colleague remarked: "If Lincoln hadn't had the vision that ballet could become an important art form in this country, none of us would be here."


Further Reading on Lincoln Kirstein

Important publications by Kirstein include: Dance (1935), Blast a Ballet, a Corrective for the American Audience (1938), Ballet Alphabet (1939), The Classic Ballet, Basic Technique and Terminology with M. Stuart (1952), Movement and Metaphor (1970), The New York City Ballet (1974), and Nijinsky Dancing (1975), Ballet:Bias and Belief (1983).

For an in-depth and fascinating look at all the ideas and contributions of Kirstein throughout his life (both in ballet and the other arts) see Nicholas Fox Weber, Patron Saints (1992). This book is the source of the quotations used in the text. Lincoln Kirstein's account of his own life up to 1933 is recorded in Mosaic (1994). For short summaries of his life and contributions to ballet specifically see: Horst Koegler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (2nd ed. 1982) and Francis Gadan and Robert Maillard, A Dictionary of Modern Ballet (1959). Also, Clive Barnes, "Lincoln In His Own Center" Dance Magazine (March 1996) For bits of information on Lincoln Kirstein and his influence on dance interspersed throughout more comprehensive books on the history of dance see: Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp, Introducing Ballet (1977); Irving Deakin, At the Ballet: A Guide to Enjoyment (1956); A.H. Franks, Twentieth Century Ballet (1971); Ivor Guest, The Dancer's Heritage: A Short History of Ballet (1988); Robert Harrold, Ballet (1980) (2nd ed., 1982); Arnold Haskell, Balletomania: Then and Now (1977); and Olga Maynard, The American Ballet (1959).