Kirstein: Building Ballet, Trashing Modern Dance

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) was a remarkable man, a champion of American art as well as a purveyor of classical ballet. A Diaghilev of his time, he was an impresario, curator, patron, and more than that—a brilliant writer. In the current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, many of his accomplishments are on view: He helped develop the Museum of Modern Art’s collection; he wrote the scenarios and produced some of the first American-themed ballets; he co-founded the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet with George Balanchine; and he was an early advocate for photography as art.

Kirstein c. 1948, photo by  George Platt Lynes, MoMA

Behind the scenes he helped jump-start Dance Theatre of Harlem by procuring major funding; he brought budding choreographer David Vaughan over from England (who became a beacon for dance archivists); he founded the scholarly publication Dance Index (1942–49). He also marched in Selma during the Civil Rights movement, protested the war in Vietnam, and aligned himself with other social justice movements.

But one of his endeavors that is not on display, either in the galleries or in the catalogue, is his long and nasty crusade against modern dance.

As the wall text at MoMA states, Kirstein had “omnivorous interests.” Early on, modern dance, which he sometime called free-form dance, had been one of those interests. He was “magnetized” (his word) by Martha Graham and they became good friends in the mid-30s. He called her “one of America’s greatest artists” and waxed eloquent about her choreography. In a 1937 article he wrote, “She has created a kind of candid, sweeping and wind-worn liberty for her individual expression at once beautiful and useful, like a piece of exquisitely realized Shaker furniture or homespun clothing.” In 1942, Kirstein devoted the first issue of his Dance Index to Isadora Duncan. (This edition is on display at MoMA.)

Graham in Chronicle (1936) Courtesy Martha Graham Resources

Sometimes, however, these interests turned into targets for Kirstein’s shooting practice. In a 1986 tirade in The New York Times titled “The Curse of Isadora,” he wrote that while ballet is “a three-ring circus; free-form dance is a side-show with its oddballs, freaks and phonies.” The same year, in an interview in The New Yorker, he said that the post-Graham dance artists either glommed onto ballet (e. g. Tharp) or were minimalist, in which case “There is nothing to look at.” Further, he claimed that “there was never any interest in training children” among modern dancers. The ignorance, voiced authoritatively, is quite stunning.

Although Kirstein invited Martha Graham to collaborate with Balanchine on Episodes (1959), he said privately that he did so because it was “politically useful.”

At a meeting with the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, to which several dance companies were invited, he said something like, “All Martha’s works are about elimination. She dances about shit.” (This was an out-loud variation of what he’d written in his diary after his first view of Graham in 1931: that her work was “a cross between shitting and belching.” But this particular quote comes direct from a recent conversation with former Graham dancer Stuart Hodes.) You could guess how much money the Graham company was awarded as a result of that meeting.

Kirstein’s contempt for modern dance was not a fluke. He’s part of a lineage, a tradition if you will, in the ballet world of throwing shade on modern dance. Michel Fokine had referred to Graham and Harald Kreutzberg as “the horror.” (This is not hard for me to believe. As a teenager, I showed my ballet teacher, Irine Fokine, Michel’s niece, a brochure from the concert I’d seen the night before: a Martha Graham program. She looked at the pictures and said, “How can you like something this ugly?”). The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce, who became a leader of the Balanchine-above-all circle, periodically went slumming and took random potshots at downtown choreographers. She pretty much toed the Kirstein line of celebrating Balanchine ballet while questioning the legitimacy of modern dance.

Walker Evans’ Roadside View, Alabama Coal Area Town. 1936. MoMA. Evans was one of the photographers championed by Kirstein.

In the wall text, MoMA refers to Kirstein’s “expansive view of what art could be.” But this simply did not apply to dance. For him, ballet was the supreme form while modern dance was a passing trend. In his preface to the Balanchine Foundation Catalogue, he calls Balanchine ballets a “paradigm of perfection.” Like the choreographer, he referred to ballet dancers as angels. So lovely, so innocent, so close to heaven. . . So obedient. Balanchine’s steps came mostly from ballet’s codified vocabulary, a.k.a. “the academy,” and the dancers executed these steps. Graham, on the other hand, had the temerity to create her own movements. So, although Kirstein was initially “addicted” to Graham’s work (according to Agnes de Mille), he later denigrated it.

The irony is that Kirstein’s earlier company, Ballet Caravan (1936–1941), had found a warm welcome in the modern dance world. The company debuted at the Bennington School of the Dance (the stronghold of early modern dance), and his booking manager, Frances Hawkins (also Graham’s agent), booked the company into the college circuit laid down by Graham and Doris Humphrey. He favored specifically American themes; according to Sally Banes, he shared with Graham and Humphrey “an urgent search for national identity.” Kirstein himself, in Thirty Years: New York City Ballet, wrote, “In an important sense, Modern Dance may be said to have launched Ballet Caravan.”

Another point made in the wall text at MoMA: When Kirstein traveled to South America to acquire works for MoMA, he was looking for artists who “have attempted to declare independence from traditional European expression.” Of course, this is exactly what Martha Graham was doing: breaking away from European ways of dancing and staking out a distinctively American terrain.

Primitive Mysteries (1931) by Martha Graham. Photo by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy Martha Graham Resources.

On large screens, the MoMA exhibit shows short clips (shot by Ann Barzel) of several of the ballets Kirstein commissioned for his Ballet Caravan, and they look pretty corny. In Lew Christensen’s Filling Station (1938) and William Dollar’s A Thousand Times Neigh! (made for the Ford Pavilion at the World’s Fair, 1940), the characters are broadly drawn. We see literal, almost pantomimic portrayals, and plots that are often excuses for multiple jumps and turns. To me, these ballets (granted, brief clips without music do not tell the whole story) look like children’s theater. Even Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938), which did have an afterlife, looks hokey now.

Michael Kidd and John Kriza of ABT in Billy the Kid, 1944.

By contrast, Graham’s works like Chronicle (1936) and Primitive Mysteries (1931) have stood the test of time. The all-women’s group in Chronicle, now being performed at the Joyce by the Martha Graham Dance Company, gathers force as it welds design and emotion together. Each movement, whether rooted or springing upward, is essential to this ode to human power in the face of growing fascism. Graham’s signature works of the 30s broke new ground in the dance wing of modernism, while most of Kirstein’s ballets of the period were insignificant, except for his insistence on using American composers.

Xin Ying in Chronicle, photo by Melissa Sherwood

Considering the artistic flimsiness of Ballet Caravan’s rep, Kirstein’s verbal darts aimed at Graham were not only cruel but preposterous.

Regarding other modern dance figures, Kirstein was hardly more charitable than he was with Graham. When he invited Merce Cunningham to choreograph for Ballet Society (the precursor to NYCB) in 1947, he was ready with clever put downs for Cunningham and John Cage, who wrote the score: He called them “minor anarchs.” Not surprisingly, he also had words for Alvin Ailey (“tasteless vitality”).

To put these put-downs in context, he flip-flopped on many people in the arts, applying superlatives one week and degrading remarks the next. (This was true of his treatment of ballet icons Arthur Mitchell and Jerome Robbins as well as of Duncan, Graham, and Cunningham.) Diagnosed with manic-depression, Kirstein was first institutionalized in 1967. Martin Duberman, his biographer, even implies that his more outrageous slurs were caused by manic phasees. Jacques d’Amboise describes occasions when Kirstein viciously insulted an artist soon after praising him or her. (The way d’Amboise tells it, these tales of Kirstein’s uncontrollably boomeranging opinions can be very funny.) I sometimes think that most of the ballet world considers it rude, or at least indelicate, to point out the unhinged ravings of such a respected figure. But these “fulminations,” to use Sally Banes’ term, had damaging effects, and one of them was to deny funding to modern dance. Another was, as I’ve mentioned, to give permission to treat modern dance as an inferior art form.

Today ballet and modern dance are less polarized. One of the qualities of the latter that most appalled Kirstein—the earthbound mode (as opposed to the airiness/loftiness of ballet)—has seeped into the work of current ballet makers. For both Justin Peck (NYCB resident choreographer) and Alexei Ratmansky (artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre), the floor sometimes exerts a magnetic pull. Another sign of the closer relationship between the two genres is that, in this centennial year of Cunningham, the master’s works are being performed by companies like Ballet West and The Washington Ballet. And of course, it’s thrilling that NYCB invited (post)modern dance artist Kyle Abraham to contribute to its repertory—and that The Runaway, with music by Kanye West and Jay-Z, was such a runaway hit.

But there is still a privileging of ballet that pervades dance training, performances, and criticism. Perpetuating that hierarchy, The New Yorker has just appointed Jennifer Homans as its new dance critic. Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels (meaning of course, Balanchine’s dancers), has established the Center for Ballet and the Arts, a well-funded project at NYU that announces the primacy of ballet in its very title. And so the privileging continues.

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, MoMA exhibit.
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman.
By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader.
Ballet: Bias and Belief, Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writing of Lincoln Kirstein, Dance Horizons, 1983.
I Was a Dancer, by Jacques d’Amboise.
• “Lincoln Kirstein, Modern Dance, and the Left:  The Genesis of an American Ballet,” by Lynn Garafola, Dance Research Journal, v. 23, no. 1, Summer 2005.
“The Curse of Isadora,” by Lincoln Kirstein, The New York Times Archives, Sunday, Nov. 23, 1986.
• “Profiles: Conversations with Kirstein — 1,” interview with W. McNeil Lowry, The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 1986.
• “Sibling Rivalry: The New York City Ballet and Modern Dance,” by Sally Banes, in Dance for a City: Fifty Years of New York City Ballet, edited by Lynn Garafola with Eric Foner.

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Surviving the Dark Periods

There’s a moment in Jenifer Ringer’s book, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet,  when she is so desperate that she contemplates suicide. She’s tried again and again to solve her eating disorder, which led to losing her job at New York City Ballet, and she feels like an utter failure. What saved her, in that dark moment, is the awareness of the pain her death would bring to her parents and sister. Needless to say, one of the reasons to read her terrific book is to learn how she pulled herself out of that abyss.


I know, from the suicide attempts of people close to me—both successful and blessedly unsuccessful—that what goes out the window in those darkest moments is any thought of one’s loved ones. (Or, in temporary twisted thinking, the notion might be, “They’d be better off without me.”) Every thought crowding around the person is simply, and only, about how to release themselves from a life that has become unbearable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman

In Michael Feingold’s recent column in Theater Mania, he comes to a similar conclusion. Prompted by the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, he is trying to understand the addictive personality. He contrasts that type of person with artist in the theater who have lasted a long time, giving the example of the 90-year-old lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Of course, addiction is complicated and an overdose such as Hoffman’s may be accidental. But in general, Feingold sees that, at the other end of the tunnel, there needs to be some feeling that you matter to those close to you. If there is a secret to survival, he says, it is “the simple awareness of others’ concerns.” Sadly, that awareness is sometimes beyond the reach of someone who’s been pulled into a downward spiral.

Depression has long been a hazard for artists. I found this in Tchaikovsky’s letters, from 1876:



“Sometimes for hours, days, weekends, months, everything looks black; it seems that you are abandoned by everyone, left alone, and no one loves you. But I explain my state of despondency, my weakness and sensitivity, by my bachelor state and absolute lack of self-denial. To tell the truth, I live following my vocation as well as I can, but without being of any use to individual people. If I should disappear from the face of the earth today, maybe Russian music would lose something—but surely no one would be made unhappy. In short, I live the egoistic life of a bachelor. I work for myself, think only of myself, aspire only for my own welfare. This is very convenient, but it is dry, narrow, and deadly.”

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Faye Driscoll’s Manic Energy Transforms Danspace

Talk about breaking the fourth wall—Faye Driscoll broke all the walls and the floor last weekend! And she’ll do it again this weekend.

Her piece Thank You for Coming starts with five dancers smashing body parts against each other—fingers crunching a cheek, a knee poking into a neck. There is something childlike in they way they disregard, and yet take pleasure in, the flesh of the person next to them—or on top of them. This is happening on a low platform in the middle of the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary. Tethered to each other in a sensual hell/heaven, they reach out to us beseechingly. Should we help them? Will they pull us under? Will we get stuck in the same frantic playground they are mired in?

Thank You for Coming, Faye Driscoll sliding under the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

Thank You for Coming, Faye Driscoll sliding under the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

At some point Faye Driscoll entered the space and slipped under the platform. I thought she would thump on the surface from below. But no. While the five dancers connected in one long, writhing line and rolled down into the audience like a wave washing up on a shore, Driscoll pushed apart the platform from below, breaking it up into segments—that turned out to be separate benches. The floor that was solid enough to withstand lurches, falls, and tackling embraces is now being deconstructed before our eyes. Where do the benches go? They become our new seats—as Driscoll carries each one to the sidelines. Meanwhile that writhing line of humans is slithering out of their T-shirts and shorts into other clothes (shades of Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest) with the help of the audience members they landed on.

Rolling off the platform, photo by Aram Jibilian

Rolling off the platform into the audience, photo by Aram Jibilian

In their fancier clothes (visual design by Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin), the dancers now go through manic stop-action motion to effusively greet or skeptically avoid someone. They sustain this hyper—even spastic—mode with superhuman energy for a long time, yet it somehow goes with the mellow guitar played by Michael Kiley.

The space is again turned inside out by a crazy, snaking, bulging intersection of nearly naked dancers and elastic tubing that eventually resolves into, of all things, a maypole dance. Again, Driscoll herself is the subverter and guide, asking people to hold ropes or tubing. And suddenly, the contradictory feelings melt away, the dancers forget their struggle, and an innocent maypole dance ensues, each round gathering more audience members, who by this time are utterly charmed.

Because the dancers were so close to us, because they were so legible in their expressions of contradictory feelings, because the physicality veered toward and away from sexuality, and because you didn’t know what you would be called upon to do, this was the most engaging performance I’ve seen in a long time. With all its anarchy and purpose, it was like the Living Theater of the Sixties.

Thank You for Coming continues this week, March 11 and 13–15. I think it’s sold out, but check out the Danspace website. 

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Harkness Festival: Kyle Abraham & David Dorfman

Lightbulb Theory, photo by Julie Lemberger

Lightbulb Theory, photo by Julie Lemberger

For the second half of the Harkness Festival, Doug Varone has chosen signature works by two of our most risk-taking choreographers: Kyle Abraham and David Dorfman. While Abraham’s Radio Show (March 14–16) gives us a beguiling rendition of gender fluidity, Dorfman’s Lightbulb Theory (March 21–23) revels in his sly, self-effacing humor and all-out, rough-and-tumble partnering. (To get a glimpse of his sense of humor—and doom—see his Choreography in Focus.)  At the 92nd Street Y. For tickets, click here.



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When Is Gaga Like Trisha Brown?

Trisha Brown's Water Motor, photo by Lois Greenfield

Trisha Brown’s Water Motor, photo by Lois Greenfield

In his latest last gaga session in the U.S., Ohad Naharin emphasized what I will call the three E’s: effort, echo, and engine. I’ve heard him say the first one often, as in “Connect to effort,” or “Connect pleasure to effort.” But this time, at the Mark Morris Dance Center last month, he talked more about the echoes in the movement—allowing the movement to start from one place and be felt in another place in the body. Feeling the echoes is a special pleasure and gives you a sense of connectedness. It’s so different from the ballet aesthetic of keeping your center stable and stretching your limbs away from your spine.

Ohad Naharin teaching a gaga session

Ohad Naharin teaching a gaga session, photo by Gadi Dagon. Photo of Trisha Brown by Lois Greenfield.

Ohad asks you to “listen to your engine.” I don’t think he means literally to listen to your motor revving up. I think he means be conscious of where your energy starts from. Where is the source of your energy? He emphasizes that the engine may be far from the part that is moving, so he also says, “Listen to the faraway engine.”

He uses the verb “collapse” but he doesn’t want you to collapse down and just drop that part of the body. So he said, “Don’t collapse into air, collapse into water.”

That’s when I thought of Trisha Brown’s ground-breaking solo Water Motor from 1978. Watching the film of this piece, you can see that she is collapsing into water! Gaga is an approach to improvisation, and Water Motor was Trisha’s daring attempt to take the wildness of improvisation and slot it into choreography. She wanted that solo to look as though it were improvised.

Trisha was a brilliant, sly, patient, impulsive, unpredictable improviser. She could evade your eye, like Giselle as a Wili slips through Albrecht’s grasp. She could be dancing with you eye-to-eye and suddenly drop to the floor. Collapse. Or, in Water Motor, she would collapse a hip that would spur a shoulder to lift that would cause a knee to swivel.

Maybe I’m seeing a connection because I watched Trisha make that solo, a little piece of it every day for months in 1977, when I was part of her company. Below is a YouTube clip of Trisha dancing Water Motor, preceded by Trisha and me showing the phrase called Solo Olos from Line Up, which we made with Trisha the year before.

And by the way, my body felt great the day after that gaga class! So you might want to know that MMDC will host another gaga intensive in August.


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Why Are Some Traditions Valued More Than Others?

Beach Birds by Merce Cunningham

Beach Birds by Merce Cunningham

There are longer traditions and there are shorter traditions. But most dance or art comes out of some kind of tradition, even if it feels like it’s breaking with tradition. In fact, as Bill T. Jones said at a recent talk, “Our tradition was to kill your Buddha,” meaning break the rules of whatever authority you perceive.

But even that is a tradition.

It’s been the tradition of modern dance to find your own way. Every choreographer had to break away from whoever came before. Graham broke with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn; Cunningham broke from Graham. The whole generation of Judson Dance Theater explored pedestrian movement that Cunningham wouldn’t go near. And then it exploded out into postmodern dance from there.

Chapel/Chapter by Bill T. Jones

Chapel/Chapter by Bill T. Jones

But the ballet tradition is so strong, the virtuosity so visible, that we tend to put more faith in it than other traditions. I’ve been reminded of this general preference from written reviews, conversations, and public talks. There is simply more weight to the longer tradition of ballet and the more obvious virtuosity of ballet.

Lerman-Hiking Small

This is why Liz Lerman titled her book  Hiking the Horizontal. She didn’t agree with the hierarchy of certain theaters and certain forms of dance being considered the top. Wanting to put all types of dance on a level playing field, she calls her approach “hiking the horizontal.” She’s particularly interested in how to make dances for different populations. Curiosity drives her to research what’s on the horizon.

I love ballet and am thankful to Dance Magazine for giving me the opportunity to re-enter the ballet world, which I was very passionate about while I was growing up—before I became a (post)modern dancer.

I just wish people would have fewer assumptions about ballet and realize that every genre of dance makes a unique contribution.

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