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Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)

By Tara Davis

Maria Tallchief introduced the world to the possibility and artistry of American ballet with her virtuoso dancing abilities, strong classical background, and unwavering determination. Tallchief built on her Russian training to create a bridge from the old world to the new dawning of American ballet. A Native American from Oklahoma, Tallchief went to become the first prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet and to gain worldwide recognition for her grace and prowess. She was arguably the first distinctly American ballerina to gain worldwide acclaim.  

Maria Tallchief was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief in Fairfax, Oklahoma to a Scotch-Irish mother and an Osage father. At her mother’s insistence, Tallchief began studying ballet at the age of three. At the age of six, the Tallchief family, including sister Marjorie Tallchief, moved to Beverly Hills, California, where the sisters began taking classes with Ernest Belcher. They continued to study and perform dance while Maria also took music lessons. At twelve, Maria began studying with Russian-born choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, with whom she remained until graduating high school. At seventeen, Tallchief signed on with Serge Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and moved to New York to begin her career in earnest.

Starting in the corps, Tallchief began to gain recognition when she stepped up as an understudy in Nijinska’s Chopin Concerto, which captured the notice of New York critics. John Martin wrote: “She is well off the beaten track in ballerina types, but she is a ballerina as surely as this is Sunday. She has an easy brilliance that smacks of authority rather than bravura, and when she has grown up, so to speak, she can hardly escape being Somebody” (Martin X5).

Much as Martin predicted, Tallchief’s career began to blossom and was forever changed when she met George Balanchine, who returned to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to serve as a choreographer. The two began working closely with one other and Balanchine began subtly influencing Tallchief’s technique, specifically suggesting she work at perfecting the battement tendu. She recalls: “He was just telling me I had to go back to the beginning, start all over again… It meant that I virtually had to retrain myself, work harder than ever before. But I had seen the difference… I knew he was right” (Tallchief 46). Tallchief set to work immediately, adjusting her movements until she began to attain the desired form she was looking for. After months of working together, Balanchine proposed, and in 1946 the couple married and moved to New York, where George and Lincoln Kirstein began the Ballet Society – which would eventually become New York City Ballet.  

Tallchief is perhaps best known for her role in Balanchine’s Firebird; he created his version of the Stravinsky ballet, which was originally choreographed by Michel Fokine and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, expressly for Tallchief. New York City Ballet premiered the piece in 1949, where it was met with unbridled enthusiasm. The critics praised Tallchief: “[Balanchine] has asked her to do everything, except spin on her head, and she does it with complete and incomparable brilliance. More than this, however, she never departs from the style of the role and its character; she is always the magic bird, and the captive bird. Her movements are sharp and quick and clean, and we are always aware that the air is her true milieu. Miss Tallchief has been a fine dancer for some time, but here she has really outdone herself” (Martin 22). The role was revived with an air of freshness, and solidified Tallchief as a true American prima ballerina.

Tallchief and Balanchine divorced in 1950, but continued to work amicably together. In her tenure with New York City Ballet, Balanchine choreographed a number of roles for Tallchief, including Symphony in C, Orpheus, Bourrée Fantasque, Sylvia Pas de Deux, Swan Lake, Scotch Symphony, Nutcracker, Allegro brillante, and Gounod Symphony.

Tallchief tirelessly pursued her career, performing all over the world with a number of companies, including Chicago City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Ballet Theatre (later called American Ballet Theatre), and she was the first American to perform with the Royal Ballet. In 1944, she toured yet again with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a guest star, making $2000 a week, becoming the highest paid ballerina in history up to that point. She also performed on a diplomatic tour of the Soviet Union. She brought ballet to millions with her television appearances on the Bell Telephone Hour and her movie appearance as Anna Pavlova in the film Million Dollar Mermaid.  In 1966, Tallchief retired from dancing, moving to Chicago in order to be with her family.

Tallchief’s Russian training allowed her to serve as a bridge from old world ballet to a new, truly American voice. Known for her strong classical technique, virtuoso skills, and exceptional musicality, Tallchief exhibited to the world the possibilities of an American ballet that paid reverence to tradition, but also forged its own path. Critics widely revered Tallchief’s style and range: “She has a strong sense of the dramatic, is wonderfully authoritative, in full command of her brilliant technique and knows how to be alluring and sinister at the same time,” Anatole Chujoy wrote (5). With her polished skills and unwavering talent, Tallchief established America’s place in the ballet world. 

Edwin Denby wrote of the attributes of American ballerinas that distinguished them from their European counterparts:  “how effective they are with their charming long-limbed figures, their simple carriage, strong legs, their dazzling speed and their clean grace of line; how animated in the variety of their impetus, in their technical exactness and the exactness of their musicality; how touching in their unself-conscious delight in dancing, their cooperativeness, in the sobriety of their appeal, in the strength of their grace” (Denby 644). With the exception of long limbs, Denby perfectly described the components of Tallchief as a dancer. Her style, grace, and musicality helped define a new force of ballet.

The surge of ballet in America, and the effects of World War II, had created a unique environment for the world of ballet. Edwin Denby describes how: “Wartime, here as abroad, made everyone more eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet. More people could also afford tickets. And in wartime the fact that no word was spoken on stage was in itself a relief” (Denby 639). This tumultuous time and renewed interest in and desire for ballet led to a shift in the dance world, and a new dawning in American ballet, which claims Balanchine as one of its primary architects. “He [Balanchine] is more than anyone else the real founder of the American classic style. He has shown our dancers how to be natural in classicism, and he has shown them how to become unaffectedly brilliant in their own natural terms” (Denby 644). Balanchine was seeking to shape the American dancer and found a perfect medium in Tallchief. 

Throughout her life, Tallchief has continued to pass on Balanchine’s style and choreography, espousing the value of classical ballet, by teaching at her school in Chicago and working with the Balanchine Foundation.  Tallchief founded the Chicago City Ballet, which eventually became Ballet Chicago.

Tallchief has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Capezio Award in 1965, Indian of the Year Award in 1963, Dance Magazine Award in 1960, National Medal of Arts in 1999, and Kennedy Center Honors in 1996. Tallchief, along with Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin, and Rosella Hightower, have been widely honored in Oklahoma as the Five Moons – the five Native American ballerinas from the state who made incredible achievements in dance. 

Tara Davis holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies. She has spent time working in the Ballets Russes Archive at the University of Oklahoma and she was a Dance Heritage Coalition Archival Fellow in 2012. She is a native of Oklahoma and a member of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe and has a great interest in Native American dancers and their legacies


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Anderson, Jack. The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1981. Print.

Chujoy, Anatole. "The Season in Review." Dance News Mar. 1946: 3-5.

Denby, Edwin. "The American Ballet." The Kenyon Review 10.4 (Autumn 1949): 638-51.

Homans, Jennifer. Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Livingston, Lili Cockerille. American Indian Ballerinas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. 3-307. Print.

Martin, John. "The Dance: Laurels – Award NO. 2." New York Times Aug. 1 1943: X2.

Martin, John. "City Ballet Scores in a New 'Firebird'." New York Times Nov. 1949: 22.

Reynolds, Nancy. "Tallchief, Maria." Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. . n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001/acref-9780195173697-e-1701>.

Tallchief, Maria, and Larry Kaplan. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. 5-334. Print.

Moving Image

Maria Tallchief Coaching Excerpts from Firebird, distributed by George Balanchine Foundation, 1997.

Maria Tallchief – Her Complete Bell Telephone Hour Performances, 1959-1966, distributed by Video Artists International, 2003.

Maria Tallchief & Michael Maule Performing Firebird at Jacob’s Pillow, distributed by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. http://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/dance/maria-tallchief-michaelmaule?ref=artist&refcar=/artist/s-t


Interview with Maria Tallchief (Paschen), oral history, 1972: Oklahoma Historical Society Oral History Living Legends, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division

Maria Tallchief Papers, (S)*MGZMD 215, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.