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A young ballerina named Maria Tallchief

By Diane Claytor

“When you sleep, sleep like a ballerina.  Even on the street waiting for a bus, stand like a ballerina.”  These words were spoken by instructor Bronislava Nijinska to a teen-aged Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to become a prima ballerina.  And they are the words Tallchief lived by during her 23 years as a world renowned dancer.

Elizabeth Maria Tallchief was born on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma.  Her father was Chief of the Osage tribe, which became the wealthiest Native American tribe in the country once oil was discovered on the reservation.

She took her first ballet lesson when she was three years old.  Her mother also insisted that she learn to play the piano.  In fact, according to Tallchief, “Mother…believed, because of my musical gifts, I was destined for a career as a concert pianist….she made me practice piano religiously. But I also practiced dance.”

Tallchief’s desire to pursue a career in the arts was a challenging dream for a Native American child in those days.  In 1933, believing that Los Angeles was a “giant city that held glittering promise,” the family moved there to give Maria and her sister, Marjorie (also a notable ballerina) the best ballet training available.

ImageUpon arriving in LA, Tallchief recounts how she, her mother and sister went to a local drugstore fountain for lunch.  While waiting for their food, “Mother asked the druggist if he knew a good dancing school in the neighborhood.”  He did, naming Ernest Belcher, a former movie dance director and well known instructor.  “That was it.  An anonymous man in an unfamiliar town decided our fate with those few words.”

Following several years with Belcher, Tallchief began studying ballet with Madame Nijinska, the famous dancer and choreographer.  “The force of Madame Nijinska’s personality and unwavering devotion to her art helped me understand that ballet was what I wanted to do with my life,” Tallchief stated.  “In her studio, I became committed to becoming a ballerina…Before…I liked ballet but believed I was destined to become a concert pianist.”

Following her 1942 high school graduation, Tallchief joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe based in New York City.  She quickly became a featured soloist.  Performing in Ballet Russe’s corps de ballet, Tallchief was described by a New York critic: “…She has an easy brilliance that smacks of authority rather than bravura and when she has grown up….she can hardly escape being Somebody.”

In 1944, the great Russian Choreographer, George Balanchine, joined Ballet Russe and over the years, he choreographed more than 30 ballets for Tallchief, including several of his most famous works.

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Maria Tallchief and George Balanchine

Balanchine and Tallchief wed in 1946 and although the marriage ended in 1952, they continued working together.  They moved to Paris and Tallchief’s debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for an American ballerina.  She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia.

The couple returned to New York and Balanchine’s Ballet Society, which later became the New York City Ballet.  When Tallchief became prima ballerina in 1947, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title – a title she held until her retirement 18 years later.

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Maria Tallchief in Balanchine’s “Firebird”

Tallchief is perhaps best known for her role in Balanchine’s Firebird; he created his version of the Stravinsky ballet specifically for her in 1949.  New York critics stated, “…She does [everything] with complete and incomparable brilliance…she never departs from the style of the role and its character; her movements are sharp and quick and clean and we are always aware that the air is her true milieu…” This role solidified Tallchief as a true American prima ballerina. (Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJwzjyohBHo )

In 1954, Tallchief originated the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker.  Again, critics praised her: “Tallchief…is herself a creature of magic, dancing…with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with her radiance of being…”

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Rudolf Nureyev & Maria Tallchief in a TV performance of “Flower Festival in Genzano.”

In 1955, Tallchief returned to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a guest artist, receiving the highest salary ever paid to any dancer.  When the newly-defected Rudolf Nureyev debuted on American television in 1962, he asked Tallchief to be his partner.

Tallchief remained with the New York City Ballet before joining the American Ballet Theatre in 1960, where she continued until her 1965 retirement. Throughout her career, she consistently earning high praise for her brilliant technique, musicality, strength and unwavering talent. Her Russian training allowed her to serve as a bridge from old world ballet to a new, more American style.  As stated in The New Yorker, “Maria Tallchief and American ballet came of age in the same moment…her story will always be the story of ballet conquering America…”

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Maria Tallchief is still active with ballet today as the Artistic Honorary Advisor for Chicago Festival Ballet.

In 1956, Tallchief married Henry Paschen, a Chicago builder, and gave birth to their daughter, Elise, in 1959.  Moving to Chicago after she retired, Tallchief was director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet from 1973 to 1979 and, with her sister Marjorie, founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981.  She served as its artistic director until 1987.

Tallchief was twice named “Woman of the Year” by the Washington Press Club.  In 1996, she received a Kennedy Center Honor and in 1999, she was awarded the American National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts.

In a 1994 interview, Tallchief said, “The art [of ballet] is what it’s all about.  From your first plie, you are learning to become an artist.  In every sense of the word, you are poetry in motion. And if you are fortunate…as I was, to be connected with the genius of Balanchine, you are not only poetry in motion, but you are actually the music”

George Balanchine’s classic Stars and Striped Pas De Deux comes to Diablo Ballet this May 3rd & 4th. Click here for information.

Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates. She’s a staunch believer in arts education and is extremely impressed with Diablo Ballet’s PEEK program, ensuring that children of all economic levels have the opportunity to experience the power of dance. 

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