Osage ballerina Maria Tallchief broke ground for Native American ballet dancers and was not only one of George Balanchine’s wives, but an inspiration to him. She walked on Thursday, April 11 at a hospital in Chicago. She was 88.
TallChief was one of five Native ballerinas from Oklahoma to make a name for themselves in the ballet world from the 1940s to 1960s. Another of those was her sister, Marjorie Tallchief, who was just 21 months younger than Maria.
Maria was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma and grew up on the Osage reservation. She was known as Betty Marie and was the daughter of Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, an Osage, and Ruth Porter, an Irish/Scottish woman from Kansas.
“My father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a full-blooded Osage Indian. Six foot two, he walked with a sturdy gait and loved to hunt. The story goes that he could stroll through the woods, rifle in hand, spot a quail or pheasant out of the corner of his eye, point the gun, and shoot the bird without breaking his stride. With his strong aquiline profile, Daddy resembled the Indian on the buffalo-head nickel. Women found him handsome, and when I was young I idolized him,” Maria says in her 1997 memoir Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina, which she wrote with Larry Kaplan.
Oil was discovered on Osage land when her father was a boy so he received headright payments from that. He owned the local movie theater and pool hall. Their 10-room home “stood high on a hill overlooking the reservation,” she says in the book.
Ruth had Maria in piano and dance lessons at 3 and Marjorie began lessons soon after. The two would perform together locally.
“Whenever a rodeo was held in Fairfax or Ponca City or Grey Horse or Pawhuska, the Tall Chief girls were always asked to dance,” Maria says in her memoir.
When Maria was 12 she became a student at Bronislava Nijinska’s school in Beverly Hills. Nijinska was a graduate of the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg, Russia, she danced at the Maryinsky Theatre and with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Europe and was also a choreographer.
“Because her English was practically nonexistent Madame Nijinska rarely spoke. She didn't have to. She had incredible personal magnetism and she radiated authority. Most of the time she demonstrated. It was hard to imagine her as a ballerina, but how she moved! Her footwork was phenomenal. She jumped and flashed around the studio,” Maria says in her memoir. “I was under her spell. The likes of Madame Nijinska were something I had never seen before.”
It was Nijinska who made Tallchief realize she wanted to be a dancer.
“The force of Madame Nijinska's personality, and her unwavering devotion to her art, helped me to understand that ballet was what I wanted to do with my life. In her studio I became committed to becoming a ballerina, and Madame understood I was serious,” Maria says in her memoir. “She saw that I was very musical and had good proportions, and she paid a great deal of attention to me. She was always giving me corrections, a sign of her interest, and little by little she began treating me like her protégée.”
When she was 15, Maria earned a lead role in one of Nijinska’s ballets being performed at the Hollywood Bowl. She slipped, but Nijinska didn’t seem terribly concerned. After graduating high school she traveled to New York City with Tanya Riabouchinska, another of Nijinska’s students, and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942.
She married famed choreographer George Balanchine in 1946 and joined the New York City Ballet in 1948, dancing to her husband’s choreography.
She originated roles as lead dancer in Balanchine’s ballet “The Firebird” in 1949 and “Swan Lake” in 1951.
“A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own. Each individual brings something different to the same role,” Tallchief once said. “As an American, I believe in great individualism. That's the way I was brought up.”
Her marriage to Balanchine was short-lived —they divorced in 1951 but continued working together. One of her most famous roles was of the Sugar Plum Fairy in his 1954 production of “The Nutcracker.”
From 1952 to 1954 she was briefly married to charter airline pilot Elmourza Natirboff. Then in 1955 she met Henry D. “Buzz” Paschen, Jr., who would be the father of her daughter, Elise.
“My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage,” Elise Paschen, now a poet, said in a statement. “Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did.”
Maria attributed her success to her mother.
“Her fortitude and strength of mind, values she instilled in my sister and me, helped us achieve what we accomplished in life,” she says in her memoir. Marjorie achieved fame as a dancer in Europe.
She didn’t achieve all her success without struggles growing up though. She speaks of dealing with stereotypes and being made fun of in the first chapter of her book. It started when she was 8 and the family had moved to California. She was placed in a public school in Beverly Hills.
“Some of the students made fun of my last name, pretending they didn't understand if it was Tall or Chief. A few made war whoops whenever they saw me, and asked why I didn't wear feathers or if my father took scalps. After a while, they became accustomed to me, but the experience was painful. Eventually, I turned the spelling of my last name into one word. Everything in school was in strict alphabetical order and I wanted to avoid confusion.”
Nobody is confused as to who Maria Tallchief was now. She made a permanent mark on the world of dance.