More Arms Than Shiva

By Marina Harss

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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The Worlds of Lincoln
Kirstein
By Martin Duberman
Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pages, $37.50.

Barely a quarter of the way through “The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein,” Martin Duberman’s voluminous new biography of the arts patron who, through his partnership with choreographer George Balanchine, transformed American ballet, the subject has undertaken — with varying degrees of success — more projects, met more fascinating people and had more lovers than most of his contemporaries, or most anyone else for that matter, would in a lifetime.

By 1933, the year he met Balanchine and decided to bring him to America, the then 26-year-old Kirstein had already started a magazine devoted to modernism in literature and the arts, briefly headed Museum of Modern Art’s film department, co-founded a pioneering organization for the promotion of modern art, picnicked with Virginia Woolf, studied the teachings of the fashionable religious mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, curated a mural show for the MoMa, composed an autobiographical novel that enraged his family, written a monograph on the choreographer Michel Fokine, collaborated on a biography of dance virtuoso Vaslav Nijinsky and finally, perhaps out of exhaustion, decided to create a ballet school.

Kirstein, it seems, wanted to do everything: write novels, plays and poetry; paint; hobnob with the greatest artists and writers of his time; perform the role of a manic impresario with one finger, or arm, in every branch of the arts (with the exception of music, for which, he admitted, he had a “tin ear”). As Duberman aptly puts it, he was “temperamentally incapable of focusing exclusively on a single project.” Similarly, he couldn’t commit to a single, coherent world view or belief system, and for much of his life floated between the secular Judaism he was born into, mystical Gurdjieffism and an ambivalent and amorphous sort of communism that was nonetheless a source of great worry to his father, chairman of Filene’s department store and a convinced (though enlightened and generous) capitalist. It helped that Lincoln Kirstein had money — though never, it seems, enough to allow him to single-handedly back the institutions he brought into existence. He was restless, full of curiosity and energy and ambition, but unsure of how to apply them or of whether he had the talent to make anything truly great of himself. At 20, he declared in his diary, “I know I must be a painter first of all.” A few days later, as usual, he was questioning his vocation and abilities. Over and over he asked himself: “do I want to do something myself, i.e. write, paint — or collaborate?”

Kirstein had energy, almost too much of it, but what he lacked was a compelling artistic talent, and for a long time, a focus. He was an apt observer of human types and a vivid writer, but his novels were generally chaotic and ill-conceived, and his poetry was worse. His drawings, according to Duberman, “show talent but nothing approaching a distinctive style.” His great personal tragedy — which he shares with most of us — was that he was not El Greco, or W.H. Auden, or Balanchine.

Indeed, the contrast with Balanchine — whose shadow lurks around the edges of every page — is particularly stark. As Kirstein opines, schemes, suffers doubts and makes plans, one feels the presence of a silent Balanchine working away, making masterpiece after masterpiece, harboring neither the time nor the inclination for self-doubt or distractions. (In 1982, the year before his death, Balanchine wrote in response to a letter from a schoolgirl: “I choreograph ballets, because that is what I do. God made me a choreographer. Only God is powerful and we are his servants.” End of story.)

Despite the fact that the two men worked together for almost 50 years, there seems to have been very little understanding or intimacy between them. According to Duberman, Balanchine was “emotionally remote” — the opposite of the manic, excitable and passionate Kirstein — and, by the early 1970s had become “horrified at [Kirstein’s] operatic outbursts and messy breakdowns — [and] had coolly distanced himself from personal contact.” But the truth is that Kirstein and Balanchine did not discuss ideas for ballets because Balanchine did not really need ideas other than those that emerged directly from the music or his work with the dancers.

That said, Balanchine did need Kirstein, because he needed a dance company with which he could realize his project of changing ballet, stripping it of story, decoration, theatrical emotion, the longeurs of posing and mime, the glorification of individual stars and every other extraneous element except the relationship between movement, composition and music. It is clear that Kirstein’s original vision for “American” ballet — a dramatic, theatrical form that would express American themes and experiences — was subsumed by Balanchine’s own, more abstract and vastly more radical design. Still, Kirstein was there to provide the structure — in 1933, a ballet school, and in 1946, a dance company, soon to be renamed the New York City Ballet — to make this transformation possible.

Yet even as Balanchine relied on Kirstein to provide him with the means to perform the task to which felt he had been preordained, Kirstein needed Balanchine even more. He relied on him as an anchor to his wildly zigzagging ambitions and projects, which had led a friend to say that he had “more arms than Shiva.”

Balanchine’s project would become his own, and focus his efforts. At the age of 20, Kirstein wrote in his diaries that he was “deeply addicted” to the ballet, and by 1932 he had settled on ballet as his principal mission in life. In June 1933, at the Thêatre des Champs Élysées in Paris, he attended a performance by Balanchine’s short-lived company, and, the next month, Kirstein and Balanchine met and had “a long and satisfactory talk.” A few days later, he wrote to his friend Chick Austin, “my pen burns my hand as I write: words will not flow into the ink fast enough. We have a real chance to have an American ballet within 3 years time…. We have the future in our hands…. It will mean a life work to all of us.” By October of that year, Balanchine was in America and the life’s work had begun.

By the time one comes upon these words, about 200 pages into the book, one is already somewhat exhausted by all of Kirstein’s exertions. But this is nothing compared with what the Sisyphean task that lay ahead for Kirstein. It took an inordinate amount of time (more than 15 years), tenacity and effort to build a school of ballet, and eventually a ballet company that was solid, relatively solvent, and had even a minimal chance of survival. Chapter after chapter, Kirstein’s project seems to be on the verge of imploding. Kirstein’s access to his own fortune was limited, and the fortune itself was not large enough to carry the weight of this seemingly quixotic project of creating a wholly new form of ballet and finding a public for it. He asked everyone he knew for money, repeatedly, and mercilessly petitioned his parents and siblings, who were consistently, if cautiously, generous.

For a long time, the company was a ragtag collection of dancers with little media attention or prospects. Tours ended almost before they began, critics balked, sponsors were hard to come by. But Kirstein worked tirelessly — and, to a great extent, thanklessly — to raise money, build a network of support, find a home for the company in New York, organize ballet seasons and tours and generally keep things from falling apart, as they were always threatening to do. He hated every minute of it. He found fundraising dull and humiliating, and his mundane (but essential) organizational tasks utterly unfulfilling. Worse yet, he felt unappreciated. Because Balanchine never took him seriously as an artistic collaborator, his involvement in the process of creation was minimal. In fact, Balanchine never even bothered to discuss with him what would happen to the company after he died. Luckily, by that time, largely due to Kirstein’s diligence, the company was solid enough to survive even the death of its master.

Intermixed with the discussion of the efforts needed to sustain the dance company, Duberman provides an account of his subject’s many other activities: Kirstein wrote hundreds of articles and several important books on dance, including a history of the New York City Ballet and “Movement and Metaphor,” a historical study of 50 seminal ballets from the last 400 years, as well as a notoriously untrustworthy memoir, “Mosaic.” Duberman also gives an infinitely layered and detailed account of Kirstein’s personal life: his friends (mostly writers and artists), and lovers (a few women but mostly men), the politics and sexual behavior of his social milieu in New York (Duberman calls it “haute bohemia”), his complicated marriage to the beautiful and emotionally delicate Fidelma Cadmus (sister of the painter Paul Cadmus) and, in the later years, his frequent breakdowns. Kirstein knew everyone, and his comments about his friends and contemporaries in letters and diaries, quoted at length, are amusing but eventually become tiresome: Frederick Ashton is “agreeable if a little fancy,” the anthropologist Margaret Mead “one dumpy little woman” and the composer Virgil Thomson is “so wicked, so malicious” but also “is still an egg with a feather on it but I like him just the same.” The accounting of the long parade of relationships (which continued after he was married) — some more casual, others deep and lasting — feels excessive.

There are also long and engaging digressions devoted to Kirstein’s travels, to South America at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller with instructions to discover artists for the Museum of Modern Art (and report on the political situation), to Europe during the war and, late in life, to Japan (whose theatrical forms, and young athletes, fascinated him). Perhaps the most engrossing is Duberman’s account of Kirstein’s World War II experiences, from basic training to organizing a show of American battle art at the National Gallery, to his exploits in France and Germany, where he inspected the offices of Julius Streicher’s virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer and found a trove of ancient Jewish texts from the communities of Prague and Amsterdam in the basement. He visited the home of leading Nazi Hermann Göring, where he swiped some stationery and a bedspread (which he later placed on his bed in New York). Most remarkably, he was involved in the discovery of an enormous cache of art looted from Europe’s museums — including Van Eyck’s famous “Ghent Altarpiece” — in a salt mine in the Rhineland.

Later in life, once the adventures were over and he had been consumed by the enormous strain of keeping the New York City Ballet alive, Kirstein’s tendency toward extremes of frenetic activity (followed by bouts of depression) took a more serious turn. Duberman describes frightening breakdowns and increasingly lengthy hospitalizations beginning in his late 30s; Kirstein apparently suffered from bipolar disorder. In the worst of these episodes, he spent several days smashing and tearing apart everything in sight, smearing his own blood on paintings and sculptures in his home. But perhaps the most tragic victim of the frenetic pace of Kirstein’s public and private life was his loving but emotionally frail wife, Fidelma, who became increasingly depressed and withdrawn, and was eventually institutionalized.

The impression one is left with is of a manic life, with many loose ends and a few casualties, but this can be said: By the time he died, in 1996, his life’s work had been accomplished. The New York City Ballet is alive and well (despite periodic concerns over its leadership after Balanchine’s death), and its place at the heart of the nation’s dance community seems secure. Balanchine did in fact transform American ballet, and the influence of his quicksilver, filigreed works has reached every corner of the dance world; even the Bolshoi recently performed an evening of Balanchine ballets, something unthinkable even a few years ago.

This is Kirstein’s centenary year, an appropriate time to consider this accomplishment, and a perfect moment for the publication of Duberman’s tome, the first book devoted entirely to his life and works. Duberman shows himself to be up to the task: tireless, exhaustive (perhaps too much so) and fair-minded toward his subject. But it should come as little surprise that the man who will be celebrated with dance, lectures, and galas over the course of this year will bear only a glancing resemblance to this eternally unsatisfied, many-armed impresario.

Marina Harss is a freelance translator and writer in New York. Her latest translation is of Alberto Moravia’s “Conjugal Love,” which came out in February.


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