October 5, 1883 – Ida Rubenstein
I think her life story is begging to be adapted to film. Rubinstein was an actor and dancer of modest skill, and Russian femme fatale whose star burned bright in Paris for half a century. An outsider for being Russian, bisexual, Jewish, and artistically defiant, Rubenstein embodies modern queerness.
Born as Lydia Lvovna Rubenstein into a fabulously wealthy sugar and brewery family from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, at the time part of the Russian Empire. Rubinstein was orphaned as a baby. She was raised in St. Petersburg by arts-loving relatives who were very much part of the social scene of the capital city.
Even as a child, Rubinstein had a flair for the theatrical, choosing the name ”Ida” instead of her given name.
In her teens, she met and began working closely with theatrical designer and artist Léon Bakst to stage Sophocles’ play Antigone. This was the start of her career as a performer and a lifelong friendship with the soon-to-be-world famous designer.
Bakst introduced Rubenstein to the major artistic figures of the era, including impresario Serge Diaghilev and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Both gentlemen played an important part in her international success.
In 1908, Fokine choreographed the Dance Of The Seven Veils from Oscar Wilde‘s Salomé for her. Banned in St. Petersburg, she continued to perform the ballet without the accompanying play, unveiling herself down to a tiny bra and beaded skirt. Her family had her confined to a mental institution.
She escaped and moved to Paris to try for a career in dance and acting, appearing on stage in “indecent” costumes. This outraged her Saint Petersburg relatives. In that age, it was perfectly respectable for proper people to be seen at the theatre but performing on the stage was another matter and was no different from being a prostitute in the eyes of her horrified relatives. Her relatives declared legally insane, committing her to an asylum to save the family’s honor. Once released, Rubenstein was always chaperoned, as was customary for an unmarried young woman of her social standing.
In 1907, Rubinstein married her gay cousin, gaining control of her inheritance as well as her independence. In 1909, she joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for its first Paris season. Diaghilev hired her to dance the title role in Cléopâtre in the opening season of the Ballet Russes, when Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were also in the company. Her performance in Cléopâtre thrilled audiences, especially with her notorious nearly nude scene. Her ecstatic fans included composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, modern dancer Isadora Duncan, plus artists Pablo Picasso, Auguste Robin and Jean Cocteau, and actor Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1910, when Rubinstein danced the role of Zobéïde in the Ballets Russes production of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Scheherazade, it was admired for its sumptuous staging and startling sensuality.
Before World War I, Rubinstein opened a Paris studio where she rehearsed her own productions of Oscar Wilde‘s Salome in Wilde’s own original French, and several plays by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the sometimes lover of bisexual actor Eleonora Duse.
Rubinstein was one of the first actors to commission original music for her new stage works. For D‘Annunzio’s playLe Martyre de Saint-Sébastien she had new music by Debussy with choreography by Fokine and costumes by her pal Bakst. Its premiere was controversial, with Rubinstein, a Jewish woman, playing the part of Sebastian, a male Christian saint. The Archbishop of Paris condemned the work as ”offensive to the Christian conscience”, forbidding Catholics from attending performances under penalty of excommunication.
American painter Romaine Brooks met Rubenstein in 1911 after her first performance in Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. D’Annunzio was obsessed with Rubinstein, but Rubinstein was deeply in love with Brooks. Rubinstein was so committed to Brooks that she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they would live together, yet Romaine was not interested in it at all.
Rubinstein was Brooks favorite model, with her androgynous beauty. Brooks painted a series of nude paintings of Rubenstein which were extremely controversial at their time, especially because they were done by a female artist. The couple split in 1914 when Romaine moved on to American writer Natalie Clifford Barney.
During the war, Rubinstein, like many other artists, volunteered for the war effort, but in her own theatrical way. In her specially tailored nurse’s uniform designed by Bakst, she attended to wounded soldiers, and traveled the country, reciting poetry to the troops. Seeing her in her uniform, Cocteau wrote:
”Rubinstein is like the pungent perfume of some exotic essence ethereal, otherworldly, divinely unattainable…”
She also produced and starred in a new version of Jean-Baptiste Racine‘s drama Phèdre, donating the financial proceeds to the French war effort.
Towards the end of the war, Rubinstein began working with André Gide on a new French production of William Shakespeare‘s Antony And Cleopatra. When it was completed, Gide read it to Rubinstein in the company of Bakst, who was to design and produce the sets and costumes. Bakst suggested Igor Stravinsky to compose incidental music for the play.
Their Antony And Cleopatra was produced in 1920. It was a gala spectacular at the Paris Opéra that spared no expense. Bakst’s original conception of ten pieces of incidental music had been reduced to six. Even so, between the music and the play itself, the production ran for six hours.
One critic wryly noted:
”The show dragged on and on, and towards 1 a.m. the orchestra followed the audience‘s example and discreetly improvised a variation on the Farewell Symphony. For it was only towards 2 a.m. that Cleopatra at last consented to die …”
Despite the lavish production values, which included not only Rubinstein but also the famed Edouard de Max in the starring roles, sets by Bakst and costumes by Jacques Drésa, Antoine et Cléopâtre closed after just five performances.
Still, Rubinstein’s production marked the launch of her own ballet company, Les Ballets Ida Rubinstein. For the next two decades, in addition to reviving ballets such as Stravinsky‘s Firebird, Rubinstein produced and starred in more than a dozen completely new stage works, featuring music written by some of the best composers, imcluding Ravel‘s Bolero, Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la Fée. Rubinstein was sharply criticized for dancing on pointe at 45 years old and taking the lead in every production.
The reception of the ballets, concerts and plays that Rubinstein produced varied in the extent of their praise, and also suffered from a new wave of xenophobia with the occasional whiff of anti-Semitism.
By the end of Les Ballets Ida Rubinstein’s run, it was indisputable that Rubinstein not only mounted more original works than any other impresario, but also in starred in each and every one of them herself.
She was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the 1930s. In 1936, Rubinstein converted to Catholicism. For the Nazis, of course, she was still Jewish. As Paris fell to the Nazis, she fled to Algiers, and from there to Casablanca, Lisbon, and finally to London. In London, Rubinstein cared for wounded French troops, as she had done in WW I, while residing at the fashionable Ritz Hotel.
Her final appearance on stage was in 1938, in the self-financed Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher. It seems no accident that Rubenstein should play again an androgynous, arrow-shooting virgin.
Her Paris home had been ransacked during the war. She lost her collections of rare books and art. After the liberation, Rubinstein chose not to return to Paris. She sold her townhouse and settled in the South of France.
Rubinstein lived the final 15 years of her life in seclusion, spending one month each year at an abbey near Chambrey, where she was described as ”characteristically clad in robes made of the finest white silk”.
When Rubinstein died in 1960, it was nearly a month before her death was reported in the Paris newspapers. It was as if she had willed her own oblivion. Today, her grave continues to be decorated by French veterans, who have never forgotten the service she gave to her adopted country over the decades.
”It was Ida Rubinstein‘s elusive quality that fascinated. She expressed an inner self that had no particular denomination. Her beauty belonged to those mental images that demand manifestation, and whatever period she represented she became its image. In reality she was the crystallization of a poet’s image, a painter’s vision, and as such she possessed further significance … It was her gift for impersonating the beauty of every époque, that marked Ida Rubinstein as unique.”