A new insight into the world of Balanchine and Kirstein from the writer, editor and publisher, Robert Gottlieb

Robert Gottlieb, aged 12, didn’t care much for Giselle, even though he saw Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin dance the leading roles.

Why, he wondered, “were all those girls in white with little wings at the back jumping up and down?”

His mother, a ballet fan, preserved. The next year she took him to a Saturday matinee designed for boys – Fancy Free, Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Nope. Sailors and cowboys jumping around the stage made no more sense to him than the wilis of Giselle.

And so it went on until 1948 when his teacher took him to see the Balanchine/Stravinsky ballet Orpheus, and, he wrote, it changed his life forever.

Gottlieb, the former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, the president, publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and editor of The New Yorker, is the United States’ most celebrated editor, but for most of his life he has made a separate career as a ballet writer and critic who worked closely with the co-founders of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.

He was drawn into the world of the New York City Ballet in 1973, when, at Knopf, he was approached by the brilliant dance photographer, Martha Swope.

She asked if he would publish a history of the company, illustrated with NYCB photographs taken by herself and by George Platt Lynes.

The text would be written by Kirstein, a man honoured on the New York City Ballet website as “A towering figure, both literally and figuratively, his passion, erudition, and dedicated advocacy embraced the worlds of dance, film, music, painting, photography, architecture, literature, and sculpture”.

Of course, Gottlieb said ‘yes’ to the book, then in 1975, he collaborated with Kirstein again, editing Kirstein’s 1975 book, Nijinsky Dancing.

(That book is still available to buy online with the price ranging from $US2000 for a perfect “new” edition to $US42.55 at the other end of the scale.

Kirstein wrote more than 20 books including a very useful reference book Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, and George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker.

No surprise that Gottlieb’s writing is exceptional. After all, he was the editor of Catch-22, and edited the work of many famous authors, among them John Cheever, Doris Lessing and John Le Carre, as well as the memoirs of Lauren Bacall and Bill Clinton.

Although I’ve read several of Gottlieb’s books I learned much more about the man himself in his new autobiography, Avid Reader, A Life.

His chapter about his life in the world of dance is frank, insightful and honest.

Gottlieb writes about his long connection with the NYCB as well as his involvement with the Miami City Ballet where he planned the repertoire, worked on budgets and helped with marketing.

He doesn’t hold back when it comes to the occasional conflicts he had as a friend, supporter and board member of the NYCB and his other role as a dance critic.

In one long paragraph Gottlieb sums up the remarkable Kirstein:

“His brilliance was indisputable, his accomplishments legendary (even apart from his persuading George Balanchine, in 1933, to come to America to create a classical ballet company), his personal force almost overwhelming. He was a superb writer, an indefatigable collector of art, a formidable intellectual and artistic entrepreneur, a propagandist and – alas – he was bipolar, having several times being institutionalised. He was also seductively charming and a supreme gossip, and I came to venerate him, even love him, although loving Lincoln was a dangerous thing to do, because when his paranoia was asserting itself he inevitably turned on people who cared for him. He was also relentless about identifying people he thought might be useful to the company, and, in a more disinteresting spirit, identifying talent of any kind and helping it on its way”.

Imagine a dinner party with Balanchine, Kirstein and Gottlieb as guests.

It could be loud, it could be awkward, it would be hilarious. But who wouldn’t want to be there?

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The New York City Ballet book cover

Kirstein and Balanchine, photographer unknown

Lincoln Kirstein, 1965, painting by Jamie Wyeth

Lincoln Kirstein, photo © George Platt Lynes

Robert Gottlieb at home in Manhattan, photo © George Etheredge

George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, photo © Bert Stern