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January 24, 2016

Thinking of Maria Tallchief on Her Birthday


"I'm very proud of my Indian heritage. I think it is an innate quality that Indians have to dance. They dance when they are happy, they dance when they are sad. They dance when they get married, they dance when someone dies." 

—Maria Tallchief


Today we celebrate the birthday of Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925–2013), one of America’s greatest ballerinas, and—with Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920–2008), Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee and Cherokee, b. 1929), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee–Peoria, 1925–2012), and her sister, Marjorie Tallchief (Osage, b. 1926)—a member of a remarkable generation of Oklahoma-born Native American ballet dancers.

Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn
Maria Tallchief and Eric Bruhn, Dance Magazine, July 1961

Critics who saw Maria Tallchief dance praised her grace, energy, strength, and musicality. Dance historians describe her as a bridge between Old World traditions and a new, American ballet. Certainly Tallchief saw herself as an American artist: “A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own," she is quoted as saying."Each individual brings something different to the same role. As an American, I believe in great individualism. That's the way I was brought up."

Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born to a wealthy family in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation. She studied piano and dance in Fairfax (the dance teacher came weekly from Tulsa) and in Colorado Springs, where her family spent the summer, then Los Angeles, where they moved in 1933. Her mother hoped she would be a concert musician, but she fell in love with ballet. In 1942, she went to New York and was accepted by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (She refused the director's suggestion that she change her name to the Russian-sounding Tallchieva, but she did use the simpler Maria Tallchief.)

When George Ballanchine became the choreographer of the Ballet Russe in 1944, her artistic course was set. She became Ballanchine’s student—relearning the most basic elements of ballet in the classical Russian style—and his muse. "I always thought Balanchine was more of a musician even than a choreographer,” she later wrote, “and perhaps that’s why he and I connected."

Maria Tallchief—Eurydice
Maria Tallchief as Eurydice in Balanchine’s Orpheus, c. 1948. The estate of George Platt Lynes/The George Balanchine Trust/New York City Ballet Archives

In 1947, Tallchief joined the American Ballet, soon to become the New York City Ballet, under Ballanchine's artistic direction. There she helped Ballanchine achieve his vision of the City Ballet as one of the great ballet companies in the world.

Tallchief also performed with other companies in the United States and abroad. In 1962, with the American Ballet Theatre, she became the first American to dance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. After she retired, Tallchief became director of ballet and founder of the ballet school of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and, with her sister, Marjorie, founder of the Chicago City Ballet. In 1999, Maria Tallchief received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government


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