OBITUARY : Lincoln Kirstein
Saturday 06 January 1996
Kirstein's tastes were clear and confident. He believed in the classical humanist tradition and felt that artistic progress is made not by revolution but by evolution, by building on the past. Figurative art combined with formal concerns were paramount for him, whether in painting and sculpture or as direct statement through the bodies of ballet dancers. For him, discipline, technical mastery and the context of an institution or academy were essential to artistic accomplishment.
Balanchine's neoclassicism was admirably suited to Kirstein's ideas. In his usual succinct and pungent way, Kirstein wrote, "I knew that what Balanchine made meant ballet to me, because ballet was about dancing to music, not about painting to pantomime." His belief in classical ballet was absolute as well as analytical. He pointed out, for example: "The root of ballet-training in the five academic foot-positions established some three centuries ago is not arbitrary. These determine the greatest frontal legibility and launch of the upper body as silhouette framed in a proscenium . . . Its filigrain of discrete steps; its speed, suavity, and flagrant tenderness; its metrical syncopation and asymmetry make visual superdrama of the broadest spectrum."
Born to a wealthy family (his father was a partner in the Boston department store Filene's), Kirstein, named after Abraham Lincoln, grew up in a cultured atmosphere in a large house filled with neoclassical art. From the age of 15, he eagerly absorbed seasons of Diaghilev and Pavlova on summer visits to London and the Continent, and he frequented literary and artistic circles.
During his student days at Harvard University in the late 1920s, he began also his lifelong activities in promoting visual artists through exhibitions and writings (among the artists he was to champion were Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise and Pavel Tchelitchew). At that time, he and an early ally, Edward Warburg, were among the founders of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which is generally credited as the forerunner of New York's Museum of Modern Art; he was also a founder and editor of a distinguished literary quarterly, Hound and Horn, from 1927.
While in Venice in 1929 pursuing information about El Greco, he happened on Diaghilev's funeral. This event confirmed a sense of mission in Kirstein's mind. In preparation, he studied the history of dance in the disparate sources then available and took ballet classes from Mikhail Fokine in New York. He formed the bold idea of importing a distinguished choreographer to found a ballet tradition in the United States, where scattered efforts up to that time had not coalesced. Having helped Romola Nijinsky write her biography of her husband, he was able through her to secure an introduction to Balanchine, the choreographer whose work he most admired, backstage at the Savoy Theatre during the London season of Balanchine's short-lived company, Les Ballets 1933. The choreographer's prospects in Europe were dim at that time (he was, for example, unable to secure a labour permit to remain in Britain), and, as he had hopes for training the long-limbed, athletic American women such as he knew from films, he accepted the invitation of the enthusiastic 26-year-old unknown.
Kirstein organised and found financial support for the School of American Ballet, the bedrock of Balanchine's operations, in which Kirstein would continue to take an active role as president until 1989. He was likewise the moving force behind Balanchine's successive companies: the American Ballet Company, which briefly became resident at the Metropolitan Opera House; Ballet Society, founded in 1946 as a membership organisation to produce important new works of dance and music theatre; and the New York City Ballet, which grew out of Ballet Society in 1948 and in which he served as general director until 1989.
In 1936, during an interim period when Balanchine from necessity worked chiefly on Broadway and for films, Kirstein founded a touring group, Ballet Caravan, in order to stage ballets by American choreographers on American themes. The best-known work to come out of this group was Eugene Loring's Billy the Kid, one of several pieces with librettos by Kirstein himself.
He was to continue throughout his career as a mentor to young choreographers, a provider of artistic background, and an important liaison in artistic collaborations. Always an Anglophile, he planned with Balanchine the tribute to Britain Union Jack. As the index of a history of the New York City Ballet suggests, he was "ubique", everywhere in the history of the company.
His writings, in an elegantly elliptical style, were voluminous. By 1978, when a bibliography of his published work to that point was published, he had already produced 20 books and countless articles and exhibition catalogues. Early on, he published polemical writings in support of an American ballet that he felt was threatened on one side by modern dance and on the other by Ballet Russe transplants. His 1935 Dance: a short history of classical theatrical dancing was a pioneering synthesis, which still appears in college dance history courses. Other important books on ballet include The Classic Dance: basic technique and terminology with Muriel Stuart, 1952; Movement and Metaphor: four centuries of ballet, 1970; Nijinsky Dancing, 1975; and Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's The New York City Ballet, 1978. A number of his dance writings were collected in 1983 in Ballet: bias and belief, compiled by Nancy Reynolds. He wrote two novels (Flesh is Heir from 1932 contains descriptions of Diaghilev's funeral and of Balanchine's 1929 ballet The Prodigal Son) and his Collected Poems were published in 1988.
Kirstein's seemingly inexhaustible energies led him to be co-founder and editor of the journal Dance Index, 1942-48, which contributed to the establishment of dance history as a discipline in the US. He was involved in the planning of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, where the New York City Ballet was to take up residence, and in organisational work in theatre; he was, for example, a founder of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre Academy at Stratford, Connecticut.
During the Second World War, Kirstein saw US Army duty in England, France and Germany. In May 1945, along with Captain Robert K. Posey, he discovered and supervised the recovery of the huge collection of art looted by Nazis and found in Steinberg Salt Mine at Alt Aussee. He was decorated by the government of the Netherlands for his service.
Kirstein involved himself in the civil rights marches in Alabama in 1965. He was also a firm supporter of Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem from its earliest stages.
Among the many awards Kirstein received were the Capezio Award for lifetime contributions to dance, in 1953; the Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal of Britain's Royal Society of Arts, in 1981; and the US Medal of Freedom in 1984.
Lincoln Kirstein, dance writer and director: born Rochester, New York 4 May 1907; died New York 5 January 1996.
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