Ludmilla Tchérina was a ballerina, a movie star and an artist. She was also, in the words of The Guardian, “a woman of radiant and exotic beauty.”
Michael Powell, one of the greatest and most eccentric film directors of all time, waxed lyrical about her “creamy beauty and impeccable assurance.” And with her jet-black hair and porcelain skin, she was a favourite subject of French society magazines.
Ludmilla Tchérina – a year of triumph and tragedy
The year is 1951: colour television is introduced to the US; Kellogg’s launches Sugar Pops Cereal; The Catcher in the Rye is published; All About Eve wins the Oscar for Best Picture; The African Queen and A Streetcar Named Desire are released.
1951 also sees the world premiere of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s extraordinary movie, The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Ludmilla Tchérina stars. The event is a grand and glittering affair at the Metropolitan Opera, NYC. All the regulars have turned out: Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Morgans together with a galaxy of showbiz celebrities. The atmosphere is expectant as the audience waits for the movie’s leading stars to take their seats for the show.
Michael Powell recalls what happens next (he uses Ludmilla’s birth name, Monique, rather than her stage name):
Their disappointment [at Moira Shearer’s absence] changed to enthusiasm when they saw Monique arriving on my arm. We had hired the jewels and furs, and she had been working all day on her make-up and hair. She made a late entry, of course, and she filled the auditorium when she took her place in the box which had been allocated to us. The whole audience rose to its feet to case her.
From the opening shots of the weather vanes to the final chorus in the beer cellar, the audience was stunned by the virtuosity of our production. … Monique as Giulietta had everybody turning their opera glasses on the box where she was sitting, outwardly unconscious of the sensation she was causing. Again and again, you could feel those wonderful waves of enthusiasm and admiration, which are usually only awakened in a live audience by a live performance.
Just a few months earlier, Ludmilla had called from Lyons with news of her beloved husband: “Oh, Micky, Micky, Micky…Edmond est mort…” He had died in a car accident at three o’clock in the morning on his way back to Paris:
They had been working on different films, Edmond in Monte Carlo and Monique in Barcelona. He had driven to Barcelona to spend the weekend with his wife, and had left her on Sunday evening. He had to be in Paris at the studio at noon on Monday. Monique was crying her heart out. She had turned instinctively to us, their closest friends, their guardians and benefactors. They had been riding the crest of the wave of beauty, youth and notoriety. Money was pouring in. Offers were pouring in. They were out every night. They were spending as fast as they earned. They were Tout Paris.
For Ludmilla Tchérina, 1951 is an emotional rollercoaster.
Ludmilla Tchérina – working with Powell and Pressburger
Wind the clock back four years to 1947…
Ludmilla first encounters Michael Powell when he summons her to London to audition for a part in his upcoming movie, The Red Shoes. He recalls…
The part of Irina called for an impressive young dancer, a beauty, a good-humoured, lazy slut, destined to become the wife of a rich, easy-going racehorse owner, by whom she would have three children. No more and no less.
By now, I was so convinced of my good luck that I reckoned she would turn up, and she did – in a French ﬁlm starring Louis Jouvet. There she was, sluttish and lovely, twenty years old, a face to dream about, skin like the petal of a rose, eyes like twin moons, sprawling all over M. Jouvet’s bed, and apparently a dancer as well, or at any rate she danced or seemed to dance in the film, none of which I remember. What a dish! I ordered it to be brought to London. She arrived with a young man as beautiful and as remarkable as she was – her husband, Edmond Audran, the grandson of the poet.
Ludmilla and Edmond are short of cash and thrilled by the offer of film work. But it’s tough for Ludmilla. According to Joy Camden, a ballerina who worked with her on the film…
Tcherina did not speak English. She learned all the dialogue parrot fashion and Anton Walbrook [one of Ludmilla’s co-stars] and I, who both spoke French, were the only two people with whom she could converse during the filming. During the filming of “Heart of Fire”, Tcherina’s toes were bleeding and her husband demanded beefsteak to put on them. Remember, we were still rationed after the war, but miraculously a piece was found because he had made such a fuss.
The Red Shoes is arguably the greatest ballet movie ever made, a contemporary review describing it as “The nearest thing to a dope-addict’s dream … a brilliant wedding between Covent Garden and film craft.”
Michael Powell remembers Ludmilla when he embarks on The Tales of Hoffmann three years later. He casts her as Giulietta, the smooth and slinky Venetian seductress, a role to which she is ideally suited. From his autobiography:
And the erotic splendors of Act Two, with Tcherina’s urchin sensuality! … Tcherina, when going full steam as Giulietta, was like a throbbing, pulsating dynamo. I know, because I took her in my arms during the rehearsal of the big seduction scene and nearly dropped her!
She’s quite a character too. Monk Gibbon, an Irish academic, poet and cultural critic, commissioned to write an accompanying book, The Tales of Hoffmann: A Study of the Film, recalls:
She had one vastly effective and disconcerting trick, that of raising her eyes for an instant to one’s own in a glance of the most open and cynical understanding imaginable, then suddenly in mock modesty veiling them with her heavy lashes. I know not why it should have been so, but this action, every time it was repeated, gave me a kind of vertigo.
In fact, Michael Powell casts Ludmilla in all three of his ‘art films’ – The Red Shoes (art and ballet), The Tales of Hoffmann (art and music) and Oh…Rosalinda! (the art of operetta, based on Johan Strauss’s Die Fledermaus), in which she displays a hitherto undiscovered talent for comedy.
Ludmilla Tchérina – becoming Ludmilla Tchérina
Ludmilla was born Monique Tchemerzine in Paris in 1924, her mother French, her father an exiled and impoverished Georgian prince.
She shows an early talent for ballet, studies with the foremost teachers and makes her professional début at 15. At 16 she is a star dancer at the Opéra de Marseille, where she meets Edmond Audran, who becomes more than just her stage partner.
Three years later, in 1943, the couple transfer to the Nouveaux Ballets de Monte Carlo where she is spotted by Serge Lifar, director of the Paris Opéra Ballet. He invents her stage name, Ludmilla Tchérina.
The next admirer to shape her career is Irène Lidova, an influential critic, writer on dance, and friend and benefactor of innumerable dancers and choreographers. Irène is taken both by Ludmilla’s talent and her looks: “She had inherited from her Georgian father a luminous ivory complexion and the carriage of a princess.” Irène persuades Ludmilla to appear in the first season of Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées, which she has set up in collaboration with the choreographer Roland Petit.
Her performances bring her to the attention of Christian Jaque, who offers her the starring role in his 1946 film Un revenant (A Lover’s Return). And that is where Michael Powell first encounters her. By this time, Ludmilla has become one of the young artists associated with the rebirth of French ballet immediately after World War II. She is confident and ambitious; and, fortunately for Michael Powell, temperamentally she is more a ballerina-star than an austerely devotional ballerina.
Ludmilla Tchérina – picking up the pieces
Ludmilla is distraught at Edmond’s death. For two years she refuses to dance. Finally, she meets and falls in love with Raymond Roi, a French industrialist. The couple are married in 1953 and her husband’s wealth gives Ludmilla the freedom to form her own experimental dance company in 1959. The following year she becomes the first western dancer to appear at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow.
She also spends more time on her lifelong passion for painting and sculpture – fields in which the Paris press take her seriously. She creates several monumental sculptures, including Europe à Coeur, chosen in 1991 by the EU to symbolise the union of Europe and now located at the European Parliament. And she publishes a couple of novels around the theme of the tragedy of a dancer.
Irène Lidova records that in her last years Ludmilla is “seen in spectacular form at theatre premieres and fashionable galas, still beautiful and elegantly dressed by the great Parisian couturiers”.
Want to know more?
Michael Powell’s two-volume autobiography, A Life in Movies and Million-Dollar Movie, are great primary sources. For an overview of Ludmilla’s life, career and achievements, take a look at the obituaries published in The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times and The Telegraph.