Divas and their Worshippers

A perfectly extraordinary book has entered our lives; a biography (of sorts) of Ida Rubinstein. She was an interesting & not unimportant dame, as well as a silly bitch of the first water, but what we are offered here is pure Diva-Worship; a testimony to the twin facts that both divadom and worship require a complete sense of humour bypass.
La Rubinstein was born in 1885. She was tall, thin, rich, bizarrely beautiful, had terrific stage presence, and she was a good mime. Diaghilev thus got her to be his Cleopatra in the ballet of the same name, and then his Schehérézade – both famous ballets due to the combined efforts of Bakst and Nijinsky (and Schehérézade even has a decent score by Rimsky-Korsakov, whereas Cléopatre was a mess, musically). However, these were both mime roles; a great deal of dancing took place around Mme Rubinstein, so to say, but not actually by her. The author quotes Cocteau: ‘disposed as I already was to admire Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, Madame Rubinstein has fixed it in my heart, as a long blue-headed pin might impale a moth with feebly fluttering wings’, and adds, ‘Nor was Cocteau the only fluttering moth transfixed by Cleopatra and by her extraordinary powder-blue wig,’ which conjures up visions. A moth impaled by an extraordinary powder-blue wig, indeed.
The reason why I’m reading this tosh is that I wanted to see what it had to say about her 1928-9 Ballets Ida Rubinstein, which involved several friends of Edward Burra. The thing is, Mme R., having impaled feebly fluttering Cocteaus by the dozen in the roles Diaghilev created for her, somehow got the idea that she could actually dance, which she couldn’t. Thus, when she started her own company, with a starring role for ‘moi’ in each & every ballet, the result was such a mess that her hagiographer is reduced to erecting barricades of defensive flimflam almost untarnished by factual information. He quotes Diaghilev’s reaction: ‘she is incapable of dancing anything; she goes on her points, her knees bent … it was frightful’, and instantly rushes to the defence; ‘no other passage, out of reams of critical appraisal, has done more to tarnish Ida Rubinstein’s image. Its impartiality is totally suspect.’ –– Diaghilev was just jealous, as he would have it.
Unfortunately, the other contemporary witnesses suggest that he spoke no more than the truth. The world was being treated to a highly professional company (trained by Bronislava Nijinska, no less), surrounding a forty-three-year-old amateur. ‘Once she was on her pointes she couldn’t do anything … she staggered around. She was awful, awful’ (said Frederick Ashton, who also confirms the bent knees and ‘sick-ostrich posture’). Ed was even more to the point (or pointe): ‘As for bonny old Ida! Oh Fi Madame will have to have a special arrangement of invisible ropes to keep her for more than 3 seconds on her battered points. Billie [Chappell]says she’s just like Beatrice Lillie in her famous skit on Les Sylphides.’ The determination of her worshipper not to see the unanimous reaction of those who actually knew what they were looking at is sort of touching.
To him, Ida could do no wrong; Ashton’s salary as a dancer was ‘only 1,000 francs a month during rehearsals and 1,300 francs once performances started…Sophie Fedorovitch told him, “you won’t be able to have a bath every day on that salary”.’ Our author rushes to the defence once more — ‘that might say more about the costs of baths in France than about Ida’s salary-levels’. Or there again, it mightn’t: Billy Chappell said, ‘we were so poor … if you had breakfast for five francs, you could only have lunch for eight francs including the tip, and dinner for ten francs, perhaps. It was as tight as that. Sometimes we went without dinner and just had a ham sandwich.’ 1,000 francs was about £20.
Two other gemlike quotations to end with: ‘when Ida no longer felt capable of sustaining her role as a Diaghilev, a Sarah Bernhardt and a Tamara Karsavina rolled into one, her spiritual life quite simply filled in the gap left by its loss …’ The last is from Romaine Brooks, who had been Ida’s lover at some point in the twenties: ‘Ida [this was the 1950s] would send her fond invitations and even arrange for friends to drive her there but Romaine made no attempt to see her. “She is no longer like an orchid”.’ A remark to treasure, don’t you think?

2 Responses to “Divas and their Worshippers”

  1. The Barbadian Latinist Says:

    Sounds like a terpsichorean equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins. Were her performances ever recorded in any cinematographic medium?

  2. site admin Says:

    There’s nothing on film. But I beg to differ from the Barbadian Latinist. Mme Ida wasn’t quite a Florence Foster Jenkins. She did have a genuine talent as a mine, of that everyone is agreed. Personally I have come to think that she was born in the wrong place. Her combination of looks, genuine star quality, belief in herself, humourlessness and stupidity would have made her a Hollywood natural. She ought to have been Garbo before there was Garbo, so to say, but since she was born & bred in St Petersburg, ballet was the ‘glam’ medium available. Talking of divas & cinematographic traces, btw, is the B.L. aware that there is some fleeting footage of Josephine Baker from her first couple of years of wowing Paris? Embarrassing and interesting in almost equal measure. She really *was* a terrible actress, tho’ a fabulous dancer.

Leave a Reply