Maria Tallchief, a Dazzling Ballerina and Muse for Balanchine, Dies at 88
New York City Ballet Archives
Published: April 12, 2013
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.
A former wife and muse of the choreographer George Balanchine, Ms. Tallchief achieved renown with Balanchine’s New York 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 company’s version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” one of many that Balanchine created for her.
The choreographer Jacques d’Amboise, who was a 15-year-old corps dancer in Balanchine’s “Firebird” before becoming one of City Ballet’s stars, compared Ms. Tallchief to two of the century’s greatest ballerinas: Galina Ulanova of the Soviet Union and Margot Fonteyn of Britain.
“When you thought of Russian ballet, it was Ulanova,” he said an interview on Friday. “With English ballet, it was Fonteyn. For American ballet, it was Tallchief. She was grand in the grandest way.”
A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the state nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas: the others included her younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, as well as 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.
She was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on Jan. 24, 1925 in a small hospital in Fairfax, Okla. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a 6-foot-2 full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized and women found strikingly handsome, Ms. Tallchief later wrote. (She and her sister joined their surnames when they began dancing professionally.)
Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, met Mr. Tall Chief, a widower, while visiting her sister, who was a cook and housekeeper for Mr. Tall Chief’s mother.
“When Daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land, and overnight the tribe became rich,” Ms. Tallchief recounted 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, Okla., 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 10-room, terracotta-brick house stood high on a hill overlooking the reservation.”
She had her first ballet lessons in Colorado Springs, where the family had a summer home. She also studied piano and, blessed with perfect pitch, contemplated becoming a concert pianist.
But dance occupied her attention after the family, feeling confined in Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when she was 8. The day they arrived, her mother took her daughters into a drugstore for a snack at the soda fountain. While waiting for their order, Mrs. Tall Chief chatted with a druggist and asked him if he knew 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 training in Oklahoma had been 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, gave Ms. Tallchief special encouragement. But she also had classes with other distinguished teachers who passed through Los Angeles. One, 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, a leading touring company. She joined the troupe in 1942.
Nijinska, one of its choreographers, cast her in some of her ballets. But Ms. Tallchief also danced in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,"a pioneering example of balletic Americana. It was de Mille who suggested that Elizabeth Marie make Maria Tallchief her professional name. Her sister, who survives her, went on to achieve fame mostly in Europe.
In the summer of 1944, the entire Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 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 company, casting Ms. Tallchief in works like “Danses Concertantes,""Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,""Ballet Imperial” and “Le Baiser de la Fee.”
Balanchine paid increasing attention to Ms. Tallchief, and she 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. After careful thought, she 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 a prominent soloist at the Monte Carlo company. 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 subscription performances; it was a direct forerunner of today’s City Ballet.
At the time, Ms. Tallchief was still a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and she remained with it until her contract expired. Then she went to Paris, where Balanchine had agreed to stage 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 riddling the Paris Opera drove him to leave and return to America.
Balanchine then devoted himself to the City Ballet, which gave its first performance under that name on Oct. 11, 1948. Ms. Tallchief was soon acclaimed 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 plotless works like “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” “Allegro Brillante,” “Pas de Dix” and “Scotch Symphony.”
After she and Balanchine were divorced in 1950, she remained with City Ballet until 1965. But she also took time off to dance with other companies, and she portrayed Anna Pavlova in"Million Dollar Mermaid,"a 1952 MGM extravaganza starringEsther Williamsas the swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman.
She returned to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 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 showed 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 into a marriage of convenience with a man she does not love.
At City Ballet, Ms. Tallchief’s partners included André Eglevsky, Erik Bruhn and Nicholas Magallanes. She appeared withRudolf Nureyevon 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 the mid-1970s and was the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet, which presented its first season in 1981. More successful as a teacher than as a director, she resigned from the post in 1987.
Among her 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 1954. In 1956 she married Henry Paschen, who eventually became president of his family’s business, Paschen Contractors, in Chicago.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Paschen, and her sister, her survivors include two grandchildren.
Ms. Tallchief remained closely identified with her Osage lineage long after she found fame and glamour in Paris and New York, and she bridled at the enduring stereotypes and misconceptions many held about American Indians. 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, making both of them “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.”