The life of colourful classical dancer is to be staged 54 years after her death. Nick Smurthwaite speaks to the show’s creators and discovers her life of scandal and intrigue – including an exile at the Ritz
Ida Rubinstein was so rich she could easily have led a life of idleness and self-indulgence, but instead chose to pursue her creative passions. Her colourful 20-year career as a classical dancer and impresario saw her working with artists such as Debussy, Ravel, Nijinsky and Diaghilev, and performing with the Ballet Russes. Why then is she all but forgotten a century on?
In an attempt to remind the dance world of its forgotten diva, two distinguished dancers formerly of the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, Christian Holder and Naomi Sorkin, along with Emmy award-winning designer David Roger, have produced a tribute show titled Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act.
In it they recount, among other things, Rubinstein’s rise to fame in Paris in the 1910s and ‘20s, her bisexual love affairs, the assassination of her lover, Lord Moyne, and her work as a nurse in the First and Second World Wars.
British-born director Holder believes what made her the toast of Paris before the First World War was her style and charisma rather than any blazing talent or originality. “She was just drop-dead gorgeous and exotic,” he says. “She started dancing quite late in life, so there were comparisons with Isadora Duncan, only with more classical content. Her dancing was very stylised. There are elements of Kabuki and Lindsay Kemp in there as well.”
Rubinstein was born in 1883 into one of Russia’s richest Jewish families, who were bankers and traders in sugar. After her father died, the young heiress moved in with her socialite aunt in St Petersburg. She received the best possible education in languages and the arts. This included training as an actor for two years in Moscow and St Petersburg, giving her the tools to fulfil her dreams of performing extravagant interpretations of dramatic dance roles.
Having felt abandoned after the premature death of her father, Rubinstein was drawn to the theatre as a place of comfort and familiarity.
She made her debut as a dancer in St Petersburg in 1908 – the height of La Belle Epoque – giving a graphic performance as Oscar Wilde’s Salome doing the Dance of the Seven Veils. As a dancer she may have lacked classical skills but her body language was considered unusually expressive.
One critic wrote: “Never before has the St Petersburg public been treated to the spectacle of a young society woman dancing voluptuously to insinuating oriental music, discarding coloured veils one by one until only a wisp of dark green chiffon remained knotted around her loins.” Her respectable brother-in-law was outraged and had her certified insane.
She was subsequently rescued by the relatives who still cared for her and joined the Ballet Russes, then under the direction of Diaghilev, who cast her in the title role of Cleopatra in Paris in 1909, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, and Scheherazade in which she danced opposite Nijinsky.
On leaving the Ballet Russes, Rubinstein formed her own dance company, using her wealth and influence to commission several lavish productions that showed off her charisma and extravagance. She employed the services of leading creatives of the time, such as Fokine, Leon Bakst and Debussy, all of whom she counted as friends.
In an essay on Rubinstein, the author, dancer and academic Judith Chazin-Bennahum writes: “Ida lived her whole existence in dreams, in a mythic universe and in a desperate search for something more exalted, a greater purpose. Only during the two world wars did she exist in any sort of harsh reality.”
Rubinstein volunteered as a front-line nurse for which she was subsequently awarded France’s highest order of merit, as well as French citizenship. But even in this real-life role she insisted on a becoming costume, commissioning the designer Bakst to create for her a special nurse’s uniform.
“She was probably quite difficult and intimidating,” says the show’s book writer, Holder. “But in order to bring somebody back to life in dramatic form there has to be empathy. So I had to fall in love with her in order to do what I’ve done. She had a huge heart and I had to find the humanity in her foibles.”
In 1939, she gave what was to be her last significant performance, as Joan of Arc in a specially written oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake. The piece provoked a great deal of comment, as the Jewish Rubinstein had converted to Catholicism in 1936. Her partner, Walter Guinness, aka Lord Moyne, eventually persuaded her to go into exile for her own safety. He installed her in a suite at the London Ritz, paying her expenses for the duration of the war.
After Guinness was murdered by anti-British Zionist paramilitary group Lehi in 1944, Rubinstein retreated from public life altogether and spent her last years living as a recluse in a French abbey, dying in 1966. Rubinstein may not have been in the premier league of classical dancers but her on-stage style and charisma seemed to have made up for it, and it is that this production seeks to evoke.
Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act is at the Playground Theatre, London from January 23 to February 15.
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