Ida Rubinstein: Revolutionary Dancer, Actress, and Impresario


This paper explores the life of the brilliant Jewish Russian actress and dancer, Ida Rubinstein (1883-1960), whose name appeared in the newspapers and gossip columns in Paris for nearly half a century from 1909 to 1949. She was born into a wealthy family in Kharkov, and lost her parents to an epidemic, then raised by her Aunt Horwitz in St. Petersburg. She was discovered by Serge Diaghilev in St. Petersburg and spent her performing career in Paris and Europe. What intrigued me about her were her performing personas as both sexually seductive women and men, her full and expressive gestural interpretations of major acting roles as well as her strong and original dance, or rather pantomimic movements. She was also one of the most distinguished impresarios of the time.

Sadly, she has faded into oblivion, barely remembered by dance and theater scholars. She was a fascinating and remarkable woman performer whose deep intellectual qualities and formidable ability to recognize great talents kept her in the limelight throughout the first half of the 20th century. A glittering personality on stage she lived to perform, imbuing her roles with sublime gestures and movements uncommon to actresses at the time. Her roles in the 1909 and 1910 Ballets Russes productions as Cleopatra and Zobeide in Sheherazade signaled her brilliance and a life long career on stage. Like her mentor Sarah Bernhardt, she often played male characters, beginning with her shocking and fully realized impression of d’Annunzio’s Saint Sebastian in 1911. She went on to star in plays as Orpheus, David and Amphion, poetic dramas and ballets that surprised and pleased her dedicated audiences.

In her early private life in Paris she fell in love with the American artist Romaine Brooks who introduced her to the Sapphic group among whom were Winnetta Singer, Natalie Barney and Radcliffe Hall. She was unafraid to reveal her beautiful body on stage or in many of the portraits by different artists, including Romaine Brooks.
My study of Ida Rubinstein attempts to unmask and celebrate her lost achievements at a time when women artists, especially Jewish women, were painted in scandal and ignominy.