An idol of the fin de siècle renowned for her beauty, mimetic powers and enormous wealth, Ida Rubinstein was born in 1883 in Kharkov, the bustling railroad and industrial center of the Ukraine. She was the youngest of four children of Leon (Lev) Romanovich Rubinstein and his wife Ernestina Isaakovna Van Jung, and her birth was recorded in the Book of Births of the city’s Jewish community. The family was wealthy, cultured and Russified, a merchant-banking clan that had moved up the social ranks; her father’s title, Hereditary Honorary Citizen, conferred gentry status.
By 1892, both parents were dead, and Ida and her oldest sister Rashel (later known as Irène) were sent to live with a cousin in St. Petersburg. Here, in 1904, she appeared (under another name) in the title role of Antigone, the first of numerous productions that in the next thirty years she would commission, underwrite, and star in. Before the year’s end she left to study drama at the Moscow Theatre School; three years later she graduated from its St. Petersburg counterpart. By then she was studying dance with Michel Fokine (1880–1942), the young, innovative choreographer who created “The Dance of the Seven Veils” for Rubinstein’s 1908 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. After the play was banned, Rubinstein performed the dance alone as a concert number, scandalizing Tout-Petersburg by shedding everything but a brassière and a skirt of beads. The very respectability of her family, which now included a husband, only added to her notoriety.
Salomé brought Rubinstein to the attention of Serge Diaghilev (1872–1929), who included her in the earliest Paris seasons of his celebrated Ballets Russes. Because of her limited dance training, she was cast in “mime” roles such as Cleopatra (1909) and Ta-Hor in Schéhérazade (1910(, which capitalized on her dark, exotic looks and stunning stage presence. To the poet Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) she was the “great ibex of the Jewish ghetto,” a reference not only to her origins but also to her height. For Paris audiences she embodied the erotic temptation of the East, a view enhanced by her unconventional private life, which included lovers of both sexes and posing nude for painters Valentin Serov (1865–1911) and Romaine Brooks (1874–1970). Breaking with Diaghilev, she staged and starred in Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian) (1911), a poetic drama by Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938), with incidental music by Claude Debussy (1862–1918), choreography by Fokine, and magnificent scenery and costumes by Léon Bakst (1866–1924), the great Russian-Jewish artist, who designed virtually all her productions until his death in 1924. Like Martyre, the genre-defying works that followed—Emile Verhaeren’s Hélène de Sparte (Helen of Sparta, 1912), Wilde’s Salomé (The Tragedy of Salome, 1912), and d’Annunzio’s La Pisanelle, capitalized on Rubinstein’s gestural expressiveness and sexual daring, while presenting her as an actress in a setting of perfumed beauty.
World War I was a watershed in Rubinstein’s life. Although twenty years would elapse before she became a French citizen, by the 1920s she had become a grande dame of the French theatre. Jacques Rouché (1878–1960) opened the Paris Opéra to her productions of Antony and Cleopatra (1920) and Phaedra (1923), revived Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1922), and offered her principal roles in several ballets, including La Tragédie de Salomé (1919) and Istar (1924). In 1923, at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, she produced and starred in La Dame aux Camélias, a play closely associated with the “Divine Sarah,” who had given Rubinstein her blessing as an actress.
A new era in Rubinstein’s multifaceted career opened in 1928, when she formed her own ballet troupe, Les Ballets de Madame Ida Rubinstein. At her side were Alexandre Benois (1870–1960), who had replaced Bakst as her artistic confidante and designer, and Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972), who choreographed most of the company’s repertory. Adding to her growing reputation as a patron of French music, Rubinstein commissioned scores from Maurice Ravel (1879–1937) Bolero, Igor Stravinsky Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy’s Kiss), Henri Sauguet (1901–1989) David, and Georges Auric (1899–1983) Les Enchantements de la Fée Alcine (The Enchantments of the Fairy Alcine). Although the enterprise as a whole was praised, Rubinstein herself was sharply criticized for dancing on pointe and taking the lead in every production. She was now forty-five.
In the 1930s critical opinion was sharply divided over her merits. Many dismissed her productions as motivated by vanity, vehicles for an aging, wealthy dilettante. Others glossed over her shortcomings as a performer, citing her services to French art. Indeed, by 1934, when she presented Perséphone, a luminous work teaming Stravinsky with poet André Gide (1869–1951), her collaborators included some of the most distinguished names in French letters and music. That season she appeared for the last time as a dancer, a decision that surely caused her much anguish. But she continued to commission new works, including several that never reached the stage such as La Sagesse (Wisdom), which had music by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) and was inspired by the Ohel Players from Palestine; Le Chevalier Errant (The Knight Errant), which was based on Don Quixote and had music by Jacques Ibert (1890–1962); and Lucifer, ou Le Mystère de Caén (Lucifer, or The Mystery of Cain), a “mystery” to music by Claude Delvincourt (1888–1954). In 1938 she gave one of her greatest performances in the title role of Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), a concert-oratorio by Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) to a text by Paul Claudel (1868–1955), which she performed in France and Belgium on the eve of the German invasion.
In 1936 Rubinstein converted to Catholicism from Russian Orthodoxy, the faith listed on her Moscow Theatre School records. She was not the first of the Rubinstein siblings to enter the Catholic Church. Her sister Irène, who died in a German bombardment while attending Good Friday services in 1918, had done so decades earlier. For the Nazis, of course, Ida was Jewish. When the Germans invaded France, she fled to England, the way eased by her long-time lover Walter Guinness (1880–1944), Lord Moyne, a high British official who was killed in Cairo in 1944 by Jewish terrorists. In London she adopted a squad of Free French airmen, whose survivors eventually paid for her tombstone.
Returning to Paris after the Liberation, she made a few half-hearted attempts to return to the stage. She withdrew from public life, sold her townhouse on the Place des Etats-Unis, and settled in Vence. Here she lived in strict seclusion, reading the Bible and occasionally visiting the Abbey of Cîteaux. When she died in 1960, it was nearly a month before her death was reported in the Paris newspapers. The Sphinx had willed her own oblivion.
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