Register Tuesday | March 20 | 2018

Looking for Lincoln Kirstein

A venetian romance


To-day / Takes in account the work of Yesterday. - Robert Browning

For many of us, a vacation is a chance to explore places that hold special meaning. Like other travellers, I seek out those sites that were important to those people whose life or works have inspired me. On such secular pilgrimages, I travel not only with the requisite guidebooks, but also with poetry collections, novels, biographies and other works. I believe that, somehow, magic still clings to the agora where Socrates spoke to his fellow Athenians and to the Paris streets Rilke wandered through.

Recently, I had an opportunity to go to Venice, one of the world's most beautiful cities, home to a centuries-old republic packed with history and countless art treasures. Still, despite all these riches, one purpose dominated my time there: retracing the steps of the amazing and indefatigable Lincoln Kirstein. And so, a few days after arriving, I found myself staring up at the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, where, seventy-six years earlier, Kirstein had unwittingly stumbled upon the funeral of his artistic predecessor, Serge Diaghilev.

The story of Lincoln Kirstein is one of the most compelling in the annals of dance history. Despite his many achievements, Kirstein will be forever remembered as the man who co-founded New York City Ballet with the great choreographer George Balanchine. Of all the events of his astonishing life , though, one episode has always captured my imagination: a trip he took to Venice as a Harvard undergraduate and his encounter there with his own destiny.

For the sake of metaphorical resonance, the 1929 encounter (though in death) of the young, idealistic American and the illustrious Russian could only have happened in Venice. Not London, not Paris, not New York. Of all the cities in the world, only Venice would do.

Historically, Venice has been the meeting place of West and East. Over time, the city's art and architecture cast into its very stones this role of gatherer of civilizations, creating a magical amalgam that seems to float on water. Venice's unreal, dreamlike appearance has lured poets and novelists from Lord Byron to Thomas Mann; as Henry James put it, "sea and sky seem to meet halfway, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence"; it is a place where apparent opposites dissolve into one another. In the literary imagination, the city has figured as an encounter not only between two geographies, but also between Life and Death. Ironically, despite holding no great importance in the development of dance, Venice was the perfect backdrop for a meeting of the art's past (Diaghilev) and its future (Kirstein).

In the summer of 1929, the twenty-two-year-old Kirstein came to Europe to research the paintings of El Greco for his senior thesis in art history. During a stop in London, he ran into Agnes Mongan, a research assistant at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, and her sister, Betty. Agnes had assisted Kirstein and his college friends in staging several cutting-edge art shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts-exhibits that included artists such as Braque, O'Keeffe, Modigliani and other icons of modern art. Both the public and the critics were duly impressed by the young curators' daring.



The church of San Giorgio dei Greci, where Diaghilev's funeral was held.


Fresh from these successes, Kirstein and Agnes attended several London performances of the Ballets Russes (a company Kirstein had loved since he was seventeen) before going their separate ways through Europe. In August, the three met up again, this time in Venice. Like Kirstein, Agnes was looking for answers to questions about El Greco's elongated style. Because the painter had spent time in the city, the two scholars hypothesized that he had most likely worshipped at the Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio and been influenced by the art within.

On August 23, the three young Americans set off for the church. Upon their arrival, an unexpected and most curious sight met their eyes: a funeral of such elaborate proportions that they thought someone of great prestige, a prince perhaps, had died. And a prince of sorts had died: Serge Diaghilev, the most important figure in dance after Marius Petipa, the only person-then or since-to elevate ballet to a level rivalling the other arts in cultural prestige. The impact of his company, the Ballets Russes, was felt far and wide across the arts in its twenty-year existence. Beyond employing such amazing choreographers as Balanchine, Nijinsky and Fokine, Diaghilev made sure that dance would shine by commissioning music from Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ravel, and designs from Picasso, Matisse and Derain. And that's just the short list of collaborators.

By the time Kirstein and the Mongans arrived in Venice, the storied dance promoter had fallen gravely ill at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where he often summered (an odd choice, considering his fear of a fortune teller's prediction that he would die on the water). Caring for him were his secretary Boris Kochno and star dancer Serge Lifar. Arriving on the Duke of Westminster's yacht just in time to pay last respects were Coco Chanel (a former costume designer for the Ballets Russes) and Misia Sert, one of Diaghilev's patrons. One of these two ladies, it is believed, paid for and helped arrange the impresario's funeral at San Giorgio and his burial on the Venetian cemetery island of San Michele, all done with the pomp and circumstance befitting a man whose Ballets Russes had thrilled and inspired audiences everywhere it toured.

Indeed, the company had made such an impression in Europe and in North and South America that news of Diaghilev's death made the front pages of nearly every major daily worldwide. Only on reading those headlines while on a train to Padua did Kirstein and the Mongans realize what an extraordinary event they had witnessed the day before. And yet there was another encounter still to come.

On their way back to Venice, the three Americans hired a car and driver to take them to the Villa Foscari on the Brenta canal, in search of a fresco by Veronese. The villa, also known as La Malcontenta-an apt name as it turned out-was owned by one of Diaghilev's friends, Alberto Landsberg. As Kirstein and the Mongans examined the partly covered fresco, Diaghilev's mourners began to fill the great hall. According to Agnes, Kirstein became agitated and insisted that they leave immediately.


The aptly named La Malcontenta, the Palladian villa where Lincoln Kirstein encountered Diaghilev's mourners.


In his memoir, Mosaic , Kirstein writes that, as an aspiring painter and writer, he found the encounter merely curious at the time-hardly a call to action for the cause of dance. Yet he admits that the experience subsequently took on "a prophetic symbolism": "I never claimed [it] as a sign of vocation, although taken in sequence with other, similar concatenations, one might be forgiven for imagining there was a superior mechanism stoking one's ambition." The pivotal moment of his career, he points out, would come four years later, when (thanks to Romola Nijinsky, the wife of Diaghilev's most famous male dancer) he finally met George Balanchine, whose works for the Ballets Russes he greatly admired.

And yet I cannot resist seeing Kirstein's encounter with death in Venice as one of those coincidences that suggest there might, after all, be order in the universe-or in the dance world, at least. Without the events of that Venetian sojourn, one wonders if the young man would have thought or acted as decisively as he subsequently did.

Clearly, as he showed in his pre-1933 writings , the 1929 encounter made an unforgettable impression. In 1930, Kirstein, by then an accomplished writer and editor, wrote, "The world needs a new Diaghilev to reintegrate the arts," and to "save dancing in particular from a facile oblivion." In his only published novel, 1932's Flesh Is Heir , Kirstein would retell his Ballets Russes encounters with much praise for Diaghilev and have his fictional counterpart, Roger Baum, express shock and horror after coming across the impresario's mourners at La Malcontenta.

And so it comes as no surprise that when, in 1933, the twenty-six-year-old Kirstein once again saw Balanchine's work in London, he acted as swiftly as he did to engage the choreographer, who, despite being well respected in Europe, was still unknown in the US. At last, Kirstein had found his true métier: ballet impresario. You could say Diaghilev's death was necessary, both to clear the way for Balanchine, the Ballet Russes' last in-house choreographer, and to allow Kirstein to move the locus of balletic innovation from Europe to America.


The Venetian grave of Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, laden with mementoes and dance shoes from fans and dancers alike.


For me, retracing this poetic convergence, from St. Mark's Square to San Giorgio and finally to La Malcontenta, was a form of homage to these two impresarios. At the end of my trip, I went to the cemetery on San Michele Island to pay my respects, not only to Diaghilev but also to his most important composer, Igor Stravinsky, who is buried only a few yards away. Without doubt, my experience of Venice will be forever tied to these great artists.

To my mind, Henry James best captures my Venetian experience, in this dialogue between two Americans from the short story "Travelling Companions":

"The reality of Venice seems to me to exceed all romance. It's romance enough simply to be here."

"Yes, but how brief and transient a romance!"

"Well," said I, "we shall certainly cease to be here, but we shall never cease to have been here."

When we search for the traces of our heroes, our appreciation creates a link between the past and the future. Pilgrimages, whether sacred or secular, have been going on for as long as humans have had memory. Travel is one form of a question we live our way toward answering: Are our lives worth living? Can we learn from the example of our forebears?

I like to think of my hero, Lincoln Kirstein, back in 1929, younger and more earnest than myself, searching for answers to a question about a beloved painter. Instead, without even realizing it, he found his destiny in Venice's watery maze-a place where, like life, nothing seems quite straightforward until seen retrospectively.

........ ... Hardly were we brothers! True-

Nor do I lament my small remove from you,

Nor reconstruct what stands already, Ends

Accomplished turn to means; my art intends

New structure from the ancient: as they changed

The spoils of every clime at Venice ...

....................... (Robert Browning, Sordello )

Lincoln Kirstein, who died in 1996, was very much Diaghilev's successor, albeit in a different style. In the fifty-plus years since Kirstein and Balanchine founded their crowning achievement, New York City Ballet, others have come forward to take up the cause of ballet with a similar fervour and decades-long persistence, but none, I would argue, have made as deep a cultural impact as Kirstein and Diaghilev did. In an age when the "dance boom" has been declared dead, we wait for the heir of 1929 Venice, someone who will step out of the fog with the same conviction and take us-and ballet-to the other shore.

Kena Herod is Maisonneuve's dance critic. Read more columns by Kena Herod. Or check out her blog, En Pointe.