R.I.P. Maria Tallchief, America’s 1st Native-American Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief

The New York Times reports today that Maria Tallchief, 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.  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.”

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 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, 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.

 In 2007, PBS aired the documentary, “Maria Tallchief” about this Kennedy Center Honor recipient’s life and work.   To read more about Tallchief, click here.  To watch Tallchief narrate her stunning “Firebird” solo, click below:

article by Jack Anderson via nytimes.com; additional reporting by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

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