Lincoln Kirstein has long been acknowledged as one of the most important influences in the development of American culture in the 20th century. A towering figure, both literally and figuratively, his passion, erudition, and dedicated advocacy embraced the worlds of dance, film, music, painting, photography, architecture, literature, and sculpture.
Lincoln Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York on May 4, 1907. He was raised in Boston where his father, Louis E. Kirstein, headed the Filene's department store. He graduated with bachelor's (1929) and master's degrees (1930) from Harvard where, in 1927, he founded Hound and Horn, an influential literary magazine. The Harvard Society for Contemporary Art was founded in 1928 by John Walker III, Edward M.M. Warburg and Kirstein and led, in the next year, to the founding of the Museum of Modern Art. It was at Harvard that Kirstein met Philip Johnson, who would become a lifelong-friend and architect of the New York State Theater, now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet's home since 1964.
Kirstein's first exposure to live dance was the Boston performances of Anna Pavlova in 1920. He was 12 at the time. It was during his college summers that Kirstein traveled abroad and nourished his fascination with classical dance. In a well-reported incident, Kirstein, while in Venice on holiday in 1929, accidentally wandered into a church where a funeral was in progress. It was only later that he discovered he had witnessed the memorial service for ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev. He understood the moment to be a portent of his life to come.
A Passion Begins
After seeing ballets by George Balanchine, including Prodigal Son (the first Balanchine work he was to experience) in 1929 and Les Ballets 1933 in Paris, Kirstein met the choreographer for the first time in London in 1933 and immediately invited him to work in the United States where together they would build an American ballet tradition. Balanchine's response, "But, first a school." is now part of ballet history. In 1934, the School of American Ballet opened its doors on Madison Avenue with Kirstein as president, a post he held until his retirement in 1989.
Ballet in America
Together, Balanchine and Kirstein embarked on the creation of a permanent company to realize their vision. There would be four such enterprises before the establishment of New York City Ballet in 1948. The first of these, American Ballet Company, toured in the eastern United States and was the resident ballet troupe for the Metropolitan Opera (performing under the name American Ballet Ensemble) from 1935-1938. A second company, Ballet Caravan was founded in 1936 to tour and produced notably, among other American works, Lew Christensen's Filling Station and Eugene Loring's Billy the Kid with libretti by Kirstein. It was succeeded by American Ballet Caravan which made a much-acclaimed tour of South America in 1941 before disbanding. Upon Kirstein's return to the States from military service in World War II, Ballet Society was founded in 1946 to present performances for a subscription audience. Following a 1948 performance of Orpheus, the invitation came from City Center's then-Chairman of the Executive Committee, Morton Baum, to establish a resident company to be known as New York City Ballet as part of the City Center of Music and Drama. Kirstein became the Company's General Director and served in that capacity until relinquishing the post in 1989.
In 1941, Kirstein married Fidelma Cadmus, sister of the painter Paul Cadmus. During 1943, Kirstein joined the United States Army and saw service in Europe as a courier, interpreter and chauffeur with General Patton's Third Army. Following the war, he returned to Europe as part of the Arts, Monuments and Archives Section of the Third Army where his vast store of knowledge was put to use tracking down works of art looted by the Nazis.
In addition to a well-known career as the co-founder and administrative head of New York City Ballet and its affiliated academy, the School of American Ballet, Kirstein pursued a prolific and creative life of scholarship and writing. He authored over 500 books, articles, and monographs on the arts as well as criticism, poetry, novels and a number of historical and autobiographical works. He served as editor of Hound and Horn until 1934. In 1940, Kirstein founded the Dance Archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York which, many years later, were to form the basis of the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library He founded Dance Index and was its editor from 1942-48.
Kirstein possessed a deeply held fascination with the art and culture of Japan, choosing to reside there for a number of months during several periods over the course of his life. In 1959, with help from Dag Hammarskjold, Kirstein invited Gagaku, the Japanese Imperial Household musicians and dancers to America to perform during the New York City Ballet season. Kirstein arranged for an American tour of the Japanese Grand Kabuki in 1960. At the request of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, he arranged a presentation of traditional Japanese ritual sports.
Among many honors, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom; the Capezio Award (1953), the Distinguished Service Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1958), New York City's Handel Medallion (1973); the National Medal of Arts (1985); the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Fourth Class, Government of Japan (1960); the Brandeis University Notable Achievement Award; the Benjamin Franklin Medal of Britain's Royal Society of Arts (1981); and, with Balanchine, the National Gold Medal of Merit Award of the National Society of Arts and Letters.
Kirstein died in New York City on January 5, 1996. At his memorial service, his friend and colleague, Nancy Norman Lassalle, remembered him with the following words.
Lincoln was first and foremost a poet; his school and his company have been called poems brought to life.
The distinguished English critic Clement Crisp has written, "Lincoln Kirstein was a man of protean gifts and immense intellectual and organizational energy. He was one of those rare talents who touched the entire artistic life of their time: ballet, film, literature, theater, paintings, sculpture, photography – all occupied his attention. These many and other seemingly disparate concerns were united by a guiding intelligence which was uncompromising and uncompromisingly generous and served as the artistic conscience of his era. This was the essentially American quality of his work: that desire to ameliorate and inspire a society to the goal of a more humane and imaginatively rich world. To a grand extent his work was as intermediary between the arts and a vast public who benefited from his genius."
Classical dance amplified by Balanchine's own genius, expressed perfectly Lincoln's immovable conviction that each human being contains the seeds of perfectibility. When he was 28, a significant year, he wrote that ballet provided the means for the human body in heightened capability, to set a poetic standard for each person's ideal capacity. And he wrote and worked toward that standard in connection with everything he cared for all his life. Lincoln's unending personal struggles, and searching and learning, led him in turn to give so much of himself to others. With uncanny intuition he understood who each one of us was: artists, students, friends, supporters alike were woven into a family with common cause.
He urged us all to do what we could do best: to reach out and, most especially, to serve – a word that was extremely important to him – and a function that was so important. To enhance whatever we believed in and, in effect, to take responsibility as he did. It is his passion and spirit as well as his extraordinary accomplishments that we celebrate.