Lydia Llovna Rubinstein (1885-1960) was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, at a time when wealthy Jews were often seeking to assimilate into Russian high society.
Better known as Ida, she was orphaned at the age of seven when her aunt, who was living in the cultural center of St. Petersburg, took her in.
Ida Rubinstein’s fascinating career is analyzed in an article by Patricia Vertinsky in the latest issue of Nashim (26), titled “Ida Rubinstein: Dancing, Decadence and ‘The Art of the Beautiful Pose.’” This young woman lived a luxurious life, and made certain to always have these luxuries at her fingertips. Her education included learning many languages, yet because of her heavy Russian accent, she preferred not to speak publicly so as not to tarnish the image she had chosen for herself. She mainly focused her attention on the arts, a field that was attractive to Russian Jews, who viewed it as a viable path towards modernization.
Although she was attracted to dancing, this particular art would never be her forte. Her appearance worked in her favor as she was a tall, thin, exotic-looking woman, always striving to be elegant; Vertinsky explains that she dedicated herself to beauty and in particular, to her own appearance.
At this time, there was a trend initiated in France promoting free movement and dance through gesture. This innovation was essentially a challenge to the world of classical ballet that was slowly gaining acceptability in Russian elite circles. Rubinstein became an advocate of these changes, and was delighted to create a sensation wherever she went. As early as 1902, she found a costume and set designer who catered to her outlandish and extravagant taste.
Her first goal was to perform Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in 1908 in her homeland, but her family as well as the church placed various obstacles in her path. Her brother-in-law, finding her behavior and aspirations to be outrageous, had her institutionalized while she was visiting Paris; fortunately for her, her aunt arranged her release.
In order to appease the family and meet the social expectations of her milieu, she married a cousin. However, this step was merely a ruse and she proceeded to cut herself off from the groom.
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church, believing that performing this particular play would be completely unacceptable, banned it. Yet the means to circumvent this problem was found: Rubinstein danced and mimed the work, which included her infamous performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils, considered to be incredibly sexual and risqué.
The following year, the new Salomé was invited to join the Parisian Ballets Russes where she would star in the role of Cleopatra; her fellow performers included Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. This move enabled her to realize her dreams and to live the life of a diva and a femme fatale.
Her sexuality became a topic of gossip as she commissioned nude paintings of herself, conducted heterosexual as well as homosexual affairs and then portrayed St. Sebastian, a homosexual saint. The latter production, which she funded herself, was not a raving success; in order to improve her style, she turned to Sarah Bernhardt for tips on acting, aware that dancing was her weakness.
Rubinstein proceeded to produce numerous theatrical events, casting herself in the lead role and establishing her own ballet company in 1928. Ten years later, she chose to portray another well-known but sexually undefined figure, Jeanne d’Arc, in a musical production, a concert of sorts. Ida was tied to a stake for the entire show, using her famous gestures to communicate with the audience.
In 1935, she became a French citizen, and the following year converted to Catholicism.
During World War II she was able to flee the Nazis by relocating to London, where she lived at the Ritz while supported by Walter Guinness, her wealthy patron and lover at the time. The Irish beer magnate, a British lord, also funded some of her productions.
This Russian performer was able to conduct her life as she pleased, by leaving Russia and by eventually leaving Judaism. While she seemed to be attracted to religious spirituality in her later years, she was clearly a free spirit until that time.
Rubinstein chose to shock and titillate and used her lanky body to express herself. She was fortunate enough to have lived during a period of transition in which her artistic interpretations could develop. Being wealthy enabled her to be independent and creative; she chose the most avant-garde cohorts and created her own companies, dances and productions.
In many ways, her life personified the desire for assimilation displayed by many wealthy Russian Jews at the turn of the century; Ida Rubinstein went to Paris to find her unique manner of expressing herself and made her mark on society.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and academic editor of the journal Nashim.