Kistler was born in Riverside, California, the fifth child (with four older brothers) of a medical doctor and his wife. Her brothers excelled in amateur wrestling, and she followed them into water-skiing, basketball, football and horseback riding. However, at age 4 she received her first tutu, and (figuratively) never took it off, beginning ballet training that same year. She claimed although she was always athletic, she could never keep to her brothers—so ballet turned out to be one cornerstone she had mastered. She studied with Mary Lynn at Mary Lynn's Ballet Arts and later with Irina Kosmovska in Los Angeles.
In early 1979 Kistler was selected to study at New York City Ballet's School of American Ballet (SAB), where she met Balanchine. She joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) corps de ballet in 1980, and was featured in a Time article before the end of the year.
Kistler was promoted to (NYCB) soloist in 1981 and principal dancer in 1982, the youngest ever at only 17 years. Signature rôles include Balanchine's Jewels (Diamonds), Agon, Prodigal Son and Symphony in C. She danced the rôle of the Sugarplum Fairy in City Ballet's 1993 film version of The Nutcracker.
Throughout her career, she had numerous dance-related injuries, including a broken ankle that sidelined her for three years. She went through several surgeries, including for her back.
During Balanchine's final illness, Peter Martins became the de facto leader of the NYCB, and was formally announced as its artistic director soon after Balanchine's passing.
Kistler married Martins in 1991. She joined the SAB's permanent faculty in 1994.
In February 2009 Kistler announced retirement from New York City Ballet at the end of the 2010 season. Her farewell performance took place on June 27, 2010, and consisted of ballets choreographed by Balanchine and Martins:
- Monumentum pro Gesualdo
- Movements for Piano and Orchestra
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream excerpt
- Danses Concertantes
- Swan Lake final act
Robert La Fosse
- PBS Dance in America
- PBS Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Alexandra Danilova
- Swan Lake pas de deux
- PBS Dance in America The Balanchine Celebration]
- PBS Live from Lincoln Center New York City Ballet's Diamond Project: Ten Years of New Choreography, 2002
- Toni Bentley, Darci Kistler Exits the Stage, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2010, p. W2
- Milestones, Time Magazine, June 24, 1996
- Wall Street Journal
- Martha Duffy, Dance: A New Sunbeam, Traveling Fast, Time Magazine, December 8, 1980: "At 16, Darci Kistler is on point. There are no subtleties in Darci Kistler's success story: she is a little girl's fantasy come to life. At 16 she has been given major roles by George Balanchine, the greatest living choreographer. New York City Ballet audiences, normally a reserved and sophisticated lot, cheer her on ..."
- Martha Duffy, The Dawn of the Martins Era, Time Magazine, May 13, 1991
- Last Balanchine Dancer Bowing Out by Daniel J. Wakin, NY Times, February 5th, 2009
- NY Times by Alastair Macaulay, June 28th, 2010
- Darci Kistler; Alicia Kistler, Ballerina: My Story (Pocket Books, New York, 1993)
- Ballet Alert! – Darci Kistler
- NYCB website – Darci Kistler
- Archival footage of Nikolaj Hubbe and Darci Kistler performing Apollo in 2002 at Jacob's Pillow