Who was Maria Tallchief and what has she done? Life, biography, dance career and achievements of Maria Tallchief, known as the first Indian prima ballerina.
Maria Tallchief (1925-2013) was an American ballerina of Osage Native American descent who is considered one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century. She was the first Native American to achieve international acclaim as a ballet dancer and is credited with helping to establish ballet as a major art form in the United States.
Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and began dancing at a young age. She trained with some of the most prominent ballet teachers of the time and became a principal dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the age of 21. In 1947, she joined the newly formed New York City Ballet, where she became the company’s first prima ballerina and danced many of the lead roles in the company’s early productions. She retired from dancing in 1966 and went on to teach and serve as an advocate for the arts.
Throughout her career, Tallchief was known for her technical skill, athleticism, and expressive dancing. She was celebrated for her performances in classic ballets such as “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Giselle,” as well as in contemporary works by choreographers such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Tallchief’s legacy as a dancer and pioneer in the world of ballet continues to inspire generations of dancers and artists.
Maria Tallchief was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. She was the second of three children of Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, a member of the Osage Nation, and his wife, Ruth Porter Tall Chief. The family was part of the wealthy Osage oil community, and Tallchief grew up in a culturally rich environment with exposure to both Native American traditions and Western art forms.
Tallchief began studying ballet at a young age and showed great promise as a dancer. Her mother recognized her talent and moved the family to Los Angeles in 1933 to provide her with better training opportunities. Tallchief studied with several prominent ballet teachers, including Bronislava Nijinska and David Lichine, and appeared in her first professional performance at the age of 16 with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Tallchief’s early years were marked by the challenges of being a Native American in a predominantly white industry. She faced discrimination and was often referred to as “the Indian girl” or “Pocahontas” by her peers. However, Tallchief persevered and continued to excel as a dancer, earning critical acclaim and eventually becoming a trailblazer for other Native American performers.
Maria Tallchief’s early career was marked by a series of successes and setbacks as she worked to establish herself as a professional ballerina. After her debut with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she became a soloist with the company and quickly gained a reputation for her technical skill and stage presence. She danced a range of roles, from classical ballets like “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” to more contemporary works by choreographers like Leonide Massine and Frederick Ashton.
In 1944, Tallchief left the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo II, a smaller offshoot of the main company. This move allowed her to gain more experience as a soloist and gave her greater artistic freedom. She also met George Balanchine, a choreographer who would become her mentor and frequent collaborator.
In 1946, Tallchief and Balanchine formed the short-lived Ballet Society, which later became the New York City Ballet. Tallchief was a principal dancer with the company from its inception in 1947 and quickly established herself as its star performer. She danced a range of roles, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” and the title role in Balanchine’s “Firebird,” which was created specifically for her. Tallchief’s performances were praised for her technical precision, musicality, and dramatic flair, and she became known for her ability to bring a sense of modernity and American energy to classical ballet.
Despite her successes, Tallchief faced ongoing challenges as a Native American woman in a predominantly white industry. She was often subjected to discrimination and stereotyping, and had to fight to be recognized for her talent and hard work. However, her determination and artistic vision helped to pave the way for other dancers of color and establish ballet as a major art form in the United States.
Maria Tallchief’s career is often associated with the period of time when she worked closely with George Balanchine, one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century. Balanchine and Tallchief met in the early 1940s when they were both working with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They began a creative partnership that would last for many years and produce some of the most innovative and groundbreaking works in the history of ballet.
During the Balanchine era, Tallchief became known for her signature roles in many of his ballets. She was the original Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s production of “The Nutcracker” in 1954, a role that is still performed by many ballet companies around the world. She also danced the lead roles in many other Balanchine ballets, including “Orpheus,” “Allegro Brillante,” and “Agon.”
Balanchine’s choreography was known for its speed, athleticism, and modernist sensibility, and Tallchief was well-suited to his style. She was a technically accomplished dancer with a strong stage presence, and her partnership with Balanchine helped to shape the direction of ballet in the United States. The two of them worked together to create ballets that were innovative, fresh, and distinctly American, drawing on jazz, folk, and popular music influences to create a new form of ballet that was uniquely suited to the culture of the United States.
Tallchief retired from dancing in 1966, but her legacy as a ballerina and as a collaborator with Balanchine continues to inspire dancers and choreographers today.
New York City Ballet
Maria Tallchief played a pivotal role in the founding and development of the New York City Ballet, one of the most influential ballet companies in the world. The company was established in 1948 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein with the goal of creating a new kind of ballet that reflected the energy and diversity of American culture.
Tallchief joined the company in its early days and quickly established herself as one of its star performers. She was a principal dancer with the company from 1948 to 1955 and returned as a guest artist in later years. During her time with the New York City Ballet, she danced in a range of roles and became known for her technical precision, musicality, and dramatic flair.
Tallchief also played an important role in shaping the repertoire of the New York City Ballet. She worked closely with Balanchine to create many of his signature works, including “Firebird,” “Serenade,” and “Allegro Brillante.” She was also an advocate for the inclusion of works by other choreographers, such as Jerome Robbins and Antony Tudor, and helped to establish the company’s reputation for innovation and experimentation.
Through her work with the New York City Ballet, Tallchief helped to establish ballet as a major art form in the United States and paved the way for generations of American dancers and choreographers. Her legacy as a dancer, collaborator, and advocate for the arts continues to inspire and influence the world of ballet today.
After retiring from ballet in 1966, Maria Tallchief continued to be involved in the dance world in various ways. She became a ballet instructor, teaching at the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the Harkness Ballet School in New York, and the Chicago City Ballet School.
In 1974, Tallchief became the artistic director of the Lyric Opera Ballet in Chicago, a position she held for three years. During her tenure, she worked to bring new life to the company and raised its profile in the dance world.
Tallchief was also involved in the preservation and promotion of Native American culture. She served on the board of the American Indian Ballet Theatre, an organization dedicated to showcasing the talents of Native American dancers and preserving traditional Native American dance.
In 1996, Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government.
Throughout her later career, Tallchief continued to be recognized as a trailblazer and inspiration to generations of dancers. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 88.
Maria Tallchief Dance Style
Maria Tallchief was known for her technical precision, athleticism, and dramatic presence on stage. She was trained in the traditional classical ballet style, but she also incorporated elements of her Osage heritage into her performances.
Tallchief’s dancing was characterized by a strong sense of musicality and rhythm, as well as a fluidity and grace in her movements. Her dancing was known for its dynamic range, from delicate and ethereal to bold and powerful.
Tallchief was particularly renowned for her performances in works by choreographer George Balanchine, with whom she had a close professional and personal relationship. Balanchine created many roles specifically for Tallchief, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” and the title role in “Firebird.” Tallchief’s partnership with Balanchine was a major factor in the development of ballet in America and helped to establish the New York City Ballet as a major dance company.
Maria Tallchief was born on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, as Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief. She was a member of the Osage Nation, and her family had a rich history and cultural heritage. Her father was a wealthy businessman and her mother was a member of the Osage Nation who instilled in her a deep appreciation for her Native American heritage.
Tallchief was married three times. Her first marriage was to George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet. They were married from 1946 to 1950 and remained close friends and collaborators throughout their lives. Tallchief’s second marriage was to Elmourza Natirboff, a Chicago businessman, from 1952 to 1954. Her third marriage was to Henry Paschen Jr., a businessman and philanthropist, from 1956 until his death in 2004.
Tallchief had one daughter, Elise Paschen, who is a poet and writer. Tallchief passed away on April 11, 2013, at the age of 88 in Chicago, Illinois, where she had lived for many years.
Death and legacy
Maria Tallchief passed away on April 11, 2013, at the age of 88 in Chicago, Illinois. She left behind a legacy as a trailblazer and inspiration to generations of dancers.
Tallchief was one of the first Native American women to achieve international fame in the world of ballet, breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations of dancers of color. Her partnership with choreographer George Balanchine was a major factor in the development of ballet in America and helped to establish the New York City Ballet as a major dance company.
In addition to her contributions to dance, Tallchief was also involved in the preservation and promotion of Native American culture, serving on the board of the American Indian Ballet Theatre and working to showcase the talents of Native American dancers and preserve traditional Native American dance.
Tallchief’s legacy continues to be celebrated today through various honors and tributes. In 1996, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government. She is also the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and other works of art that celebrate her life and career.