Remembering Maria Tallchief in Motion

Maria Tallchief, a daughter of an Oklahoma oil family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century, died on Thursday in Chicago. She was 88.

Her daughter, the poet Elise Paschen, confirmed the death. Ms. Tallchief lived in Chicago.

Ms. Tallchief, a former wife and muse to the choreographer George Balanchine, achieved renown with Balanchine’s City Ballet, dazzling audiences with her speed, energy and fire. Indeed, the part that catapulted her to acclaim, in 1949, was the title role in the version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” one of many that Balanchine created for her.

A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, and the sister of another noted ballerina, Marjorie Tallchief, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the region nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born in Oklahoma at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas; the others included her sister and Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau.

Growing up at a time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names, Ms. Tallchief, proud of her Indian heritage, refused to do so, even though friends told her that it would be easy to transform Tallchief into Tallchieva.

Elizabeth Marie Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Okla., in a small hospital on Jan. 24, 1925. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a tall, full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized and women found strikingly handsome, Ms. Tallchief would later write. Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, was originally hired as a cook and housekeeper for Ms. Tallchief’s paternal grandmother.

“When Daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land, and overnight the tribe became rich,” Ms. Tallchief wrote in “Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina,” her 1997 autobiography written with Larry Kaplan. “As a young girl growing up on the Osage reservation in Fairfax, Oklahoma, I felt my father owned the town. He had property everywhere. The local movie theater on Main Street, and the pool hall opposite, belonged to him. Our ten-room, terra-cotta-brick house stood high on a hill overlooking the reservation.”

She had her first ballet lessons in Colorado Springs, the summer vacation home of the Tall Chief family. (She later joined the two names for professional reasons.) She also studied piano and ballet with local teachers in Oklahoma. Blessed with perfect pitch, she contemplated becoming a concert pianist.

But dance occupied her attention after the family, which felt confined in Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when she was eight. The day they arrived, her mother took her daughters into a drugstore for a snack at the soda fountain. While they waited for their order, Mrs. Tall Chief chatted with a druggist and casually asked him if he happened to know of a good dancing teacher. He recommended Ernest Belcher.

As Ms. Tallchief recalled in her memoir, “An anonymous man in an unfamiliar town decided our fate with those few words.”

Mr. Belcher, the father of the television and film star Marge Champion, was an excellent teacher, and Ms. Tallchief soon realized that her early training in Oklahoma had been so bad as to be potentially ruinous to her limbs. At 12 she started studies with Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who had opened a studio in Los Angeles.

Nijinska, a formidable pedagogue, began to give Ms. Tallchief special encouragement. But she also had classes with other distinguished teachers who passed through Los Angeles. One of them, Tatiana Riabouchinska, became her chaperon on a trip to New York City, which since the outbreak of World War II had become the base of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the leading touring companies of that day. She joined the troupe in 1942.

Nijinska, one of its choreographers, cast her in some of her ballets. But she also danced in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” a pioneering example of balletic Americana. It was de Mille who suggested that Elizabeth Marie Tallchief make Maria Tallchief her professional name.

Her sister, Marjorie Tallchief, also preserved the surname and went on to achieve fame mostly in Europe.

In the summer of 1944, the entire Ballet Russe served as the dance ensemble for “Song of Norway,” a Broadway musical based on the life and music of Grieg, with choreography by Balanchine. And Balanchine remained as a resident choreographer for the Ballet Russe, casting Ms. Tallchief in such works as “Danses Concertantes,” “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” “Ballet Imperial” and “Le Baiser de la Fee.”

Balanchine paid increasing attention to Ms. Tallchief. She, in turn, became increasingly fond of him, admiring him as a choreographic genius and liking him as a courtly, sophisticated friend. Yet it came as an utter surprise when he asked her to marry him. Giving the proposal careful thought, she finally agreed, and they were married on Aug. 16, 1946.

It was an unusual marriage. As she wrote in her autobiography: “Passion and romance didn’t play a big part in our married life. We saved our emotions for the classroom.” Yet, she added, “George was a warm, affectionate, loving husband.”

Ms. Tallchief had become an increasingly prominent soloist at the Ballet Russe. But Balanchine wanted a company of his own. In 1946, he and the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein established Ballet Society, which presented a series of performances on a subscription basis; it was a direct forerunner of today’s New York City Ballet.

At the time, Ms. Tallchief was still a member of the Ballet Russe, and she remained with it until her contract expired. Then she went to Paris, where Balanchine had agreed to stage some productions for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947. In her autobiography, she speculated that because Balanchine was a Francophile, he might have felt tempted to remain in Paris but that the intrigues then riddling the Paris Opera drove him to leave and return to America.

Balanchine then devoted himself to the New York City Ballet, which gave its first performance under that name on Oct. 11, 1948. Ms. Tallchief soon received international acclaim as one of its stars.

In addition to “Firebird,” Balanchine created many striking roles for her, including those of the Swan Queen in his version of “Swan Lake,” the Sugar Plum Fairy in his version of “The Nutcracker,” Eurydice in “Orpheus” and principal roles in such plotless works as “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” “Allegro Brillante,” “Pas de Dix” and “Scotch Symphony.”

After she and Balanchine were divorced in 1950, she remained with the company until 1965. But she also took time off to dance with other companies, and she portrayed Anna Pavlova in the Hollywood movie “Million Dollar Mermaid” in 1952.

She returned to the Ballet Russe in 1954-55, receiving a salary of $2,000 a week, reportedly the highest salary paid any dancer at that time. When she appeared with American Ballet Theater in 1960-62, she revealed that she could be an exponent of dramatic as well as abstract ballets. She was cast in such varied parts as the neurotic title role of Birgit Cullberg’s “Miss Julie” and Caroline, the melancholy heroine of Antony Tudor’s “Jardin aux Lilas,” who must enter upon a marriage of convenience with a man she does not love.

At the City Ballet, Ms. Tallchief’s partners included Andre Eglevsky, Erik Bruhn and Nicholas Magallanes. She appeared with Rudolf Nureyev on television and on tour in Europe and made guest appearances with Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. One of her last roles was the title role in Peter van Dyk’s “Cinderella” for the Hamburg company in 1966. She retired from the stage soon afterward.

Then Ms. Tallchief became part of dance life in Chicago. She founded the Ballet School of the Lyric Opera there in 1974 and was the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet, which presented its first season in 1981. Proving more successful as a teacher than as a director, she resigned that post in 1987.

Among many other honors, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.

Ms. Tallchief was married to Elmourza Natirboff, an aviator, from 1952 to ’54. In 1956 she married Henry Paschen, who eventually became president of his family’s business, Paschen Contractors, in Chicago.

Besides her daughter, Ms. Paschen, she is survived by her sister and two grandchildren.

Ms. Tallchief remained attached to her Indian heritage long after she found fame and glamour in Paris and New York. But she bridled at the unwanted stereotypes and misconceptions that others perpetuated. Recalling her youth in her memoir, she wrote of a dance routine that she and her sister were asked to perform at Oklahoma country fairs and Boy Scout jamborees, making them both “self-conscious.”

“It wasn’t remotely authentic,” she wrote. “Traditionally, women didn’t dance in Indian tribal ceremonies. But I had toe shoes on under my moccasins, and we both wore fringed buckskin outfits, headbands with feathers, and bells on our legs. We’d enter from opposite wings, greet each other, and start moving to a tom-tom rhythm.”

The performance ended with Marjorie performing “no-handed back-flip somersaults.”

“In the end,” she added, “we stopped doing the routine because we outgrew the costumes. I was relieved when we put those bells away for good.”

Responses to "Maria Tallchief, Who Dazzled at the Ballet, Dies at 88"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful dancer very pretty woman

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just wonderful! Bravo!!!

  3. Anonymous says:


  4. Anonymous says:

    A M A Z I N G! I can c a movie being made about this brilliant and wonderful woman.

  5. Anonymous says:

    She was one of the people who inspired this ndn to dance ballet. I always wanted to partner with her, even though she had retired before I started. A class act.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful What a Special Person

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why isn't there a movie already about the wonderful woman, a great role model for Native girls?
    Any one listening in Hollywood?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I lived in New York and saw her in the Firebird and many other ballets. She is my all time favorite ballerina. She was a very great dancer. If she was not performing I was very unhappy. No praise could be too high.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Yes please, what a good idea a movie about her life.... BUT please take a real ballerina this time for the main role, not use one as stunt with a pretty face on the front who doesn't know what she's doing (like in the black swan I mean....)

  10. Inspiration to many who danced soo beautifully bring all the emotions on the stage

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