American ballet personality
(May 4, 1907 – January 5, 1996)
A poet, novelist, historian, art collector and critic, the erudite Mr. Kirstein was an expert in many fields. But it was as a ballet director that he made his greatest contributions to American culture.
Mr. Kirstein was born on May 4, 1907, in Rochester, the son of Louis E. Kirstein and the former Rose Stein. But he was reared in Boston, where his father became the chief executive of Filene's, the department store. His cultivated, affluent parents encouraged their son's interest in the arts. But Mr. Kirstein never forgot that when he was 9 years old, Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performed in Boston and despite his insistent requests, his parents forbade him to see the company because they thought him too young.
He received a bachelor's degree from Harvard College, and while there he was a founder of the prestigious literary magazine Hound and Horn. Despite coming from a respectable family, the young Mr. Kirstein was fascinated by the raffish and vaguely criminal world of Prohibition. Describing the habitues of 1920's speak-easies, he recalled in 1986: "It was very much like the aristocratic world of Boston, only it was on a different level. It was traditional -except that these people were all disinherited."
Mr. Kirstein also directed Ballet Caravan, an offshoot of the American Ballet established in 1936 to encourage young American choreographers. Among the notable productions it offered until it was disbanded along with the American Ballet were Lew Christensen's "Filling Station" and Eugene Loring's
"Billy the Kid."
The religious imagery was typical of Mr. Kirstein. A large, solemn man who often wore austere black suits, he reminded many people of a clergyman; he was a convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism and was also deeply influenced by the metaphysical teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff. For Mr. Kirstein, the order of ballet was a secular microcosm of the divine order of creation itself. Thus, in "Ballet: Bias and Belief," he proclaimed that "all order is a reflection of a superior order" and that "all important art is religious art."