Ida Rubinstein, Dancing into the 20th Century
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Published in: September-October 2012 issue.


IDA RUBINSTEIN’S name appears from time to time, often just in passing, in ballet histories, but she appears much more frequently in lesbian histories as a member of Natalie Barney’s Parisian salon and one of the lovers of artist Romaine Brooks. Yet there are few books about her in English. The most frequently cited are Ida Rubinstein: a Theatrical Life, by Michael De Cossart (1987), and Dancing in the Vortex, by Vicki Woolf (2000).

By all accounts an intellectually precocious, multilingual woman prone to extreme mood swings, she treated life as a “theatrical production,” in the words of one critic. Rubinstein was born into a fabulously wealthy Russian-Jewish family in 1885, but by age ten she was an orphan and was sent to live with an aunt in St. Petersburg. Described as a woman of extraordinary beauty with fabulous legs, she began her dance career as a private student of Michel Fokine. In 1908, he choreographed the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Wilde’s Salomé for her. Since her dancing was not quite up to the professional standard demanded at that time, Fokine had her enter on a palanquin, gradually unfolding her veils. It was described as “magnificent theatre,” and possibly Serge Diaghilev’s first glimpse of 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. A hundred and three years ago, Diaghilev hired her to dance the title role in Cléopâtre in the opening season of the Ballet Russes, when other company members included Pavlova and Nijinsky.

Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Italian poet, raconteur, and man-about-town Gabriele D’Annunzio—wildly popular in Paris a hundred years ago—was obsessed with both Rubinstein and Saint Sebastian.

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