From the 1930s until the ’80s Lincoln Kirstein was a power broker of the ballet world, a mandarin of high art who was instrumental in transforming American ballet from a form of popular culture to a sophisticated art of the elite. Kirstein was the éminence grise of the New York City Ballet, the visionary who brought its co-founder, Russian choreographer George Balanchine, to the United States in 1933, stuck with him, defended him and funded him, ultimately sacrificing his own artistic ambitions to their common enterprise. He was also a prolific writer, a poet, a novelist, a brilliant if sometimes eccentric scholar of ballet and a penetrating critic whose interests ranged from Mexican mural painting to the martial arts of Japan.
A Harvard graduate from a well-to-do Jewish family, Kirstein was an elitist with the sympathies of a populist; he marched for civil rights in Selma, believed in high art at popular prices and even contemplated joining the Communist Party in the 1930s. He was an unflagging champion of American ballet and used his power to promote companies and artists he admired, which by the ’60s chiefly meant Balanchine, the New York City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet (SAB). He could also be highhanded, even dictatorial. He had no qualms about hijacking foundation monies, eviscerating the Juilliard dance division or keeping modern dance from a place at Lincoln Center–all to secure the triumph of the company he had labored for years to institutionalize. He was the ultimate insider; yet he was an outsider, too, not only because he was Jewish (although he later converted to Catholicism) but also because he was gay. Kirstein’s life is a case study of the relationship between art and power.
Kirstein died in 1996 at the age of 88. He had outlived Balanchine by more than a decade and left, along with books, artwork and a carriage house off Gramercy Park, a trove of unpublished writings documenting his life since his teenage years. The most important cache, including the diaries he kept from 1919 to 1936, was at the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins dance division, a major recipient of Kirstein’s largesse over the years. The rest, scattered in dozens of archives, testified to the many facets of his identity as a collector, collaborator, patron, scholar, arts impresario and fundraiser. The Kirstein executors kept a tight lid on the NYPL materials, reserving them for use by Kirstein’s authorized biographers–essayist Claudia Roth Pierpont, who abandoned the project, and the distinguished historian Martin Duberman, who has written a compelling if flawed account of his outsize subject, by far the most substantive contribution to the celebrations marking the Kirstein centenary.
In many ways Duberman was an ideal choice for this daunting undertaking. He is the author of several highly regarded biographies, notably Paul Robeson, about the African-American actor, singer and activist, and histories such as Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community and Stonewall, which offer richly detailed, innovative accounts of the American cultural and social past. He is a playwright and a novelist, the founder and former director of the City University’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies–like Kirstein, a man of many parts. Moreover, as a historian steeped in archival research, Duberman had no fear of the boxes that awaited him. He was familiar with many of the histories that overlapped in Kirstein’s life. Moreover, as a scholar of the gay past, he could do justice to Kirstein’s sexuality, discussing it with intelligence and placing it in historical context. Although Duberman had little knowledge of ballet or the history of American dance, as he acknowledges, he could locate Kirstein in the far broader arena of American life.