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 all accounts, Jerome Robbins, the man behind “Fancy Free,” “Dances at a Gathering,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof” — and, for many years, George Balanchine’s number two at the New York City Ballet — was a perfectionist, an obsessive tinkerer, an uncompromising taskmaster and, generally speaking, a pain in the neck. He was described variously by collaborators as an “agony” to work with, “venomous,” and “crushing” to the psyches of his dancers. All this is known, and yet somehow still comes as something of a surprise when one thinks of the deep humanity, and empathy, that comes through in his works. And there is no doubt about Robbins’s central place in the world of American ballet. Eight years after his death, his works are in the repertory of most of the major ballet companies in the United States; just this past season, the American Ballet Theatre performed two of his works, and New York City Ballet will be presenting eight — including a major revival — in its upcoming winter season.