Maria Tallchief is an internationally renowned ballerina. She has achieved a number of firsts, including being the first American to dance at the Paris Opera; in the process she overcame the arrogant European belief that no foreigner could be a major ballet star. Soon, however, the leading people in ballet recognized her great ability and she became one of the premiere dancers of the twentieth century.
Tallchief was raised in a wealthy family; its resources were the result of her grandfather’s participation in negotiating the Osage treaty, an agreement that led to the establishment of the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma Reservation. Later the reservation was found to contain large quantities of oil, which produced vast sums of money for some Indians. Tallchief’s family was one of those who gained financially through alliances with the federal government and the discovery of oil on reservation land.
Tallchief began studying ballet and taking music lessons at age four. By the time she was eight, she had gone beyond the level of training offered in her native state of Oklahoma, and her family relocated to Beverly Hills, California. She was trained by the noted ballet specialists Bronislava Nijinska, David Lichine—a student of the great Maria Pavlova—and, later, George Balanchine.
When Tallchief was 15, she performed her first solo at the Hollywood Bowl in a piece choreographed by Madame Nijinska. Instead of attending college, she began her formal career as a member of the Ballet Russe. As a dancer with this prestigious Russian troupe, she met with prejudice and skepticism about her talent. Yet, when Balanchine took over as head of the troupe, he had no difficulty in recognizing her worth and appointed her as understudy (substitute in case of illness) for the leading role in The Song of Norway. Creator of such ballet works as Orpheus, SwanLake, and The Four Temperaments and a contemporary of the trailblazing modern composer Igor Stravinsky, Balanchine himself was an unrecognized talent at the time. As his technique developed, he helped shape Tallchief’s abilities and her reputation as a ballerina grew quickly.
Tallchief married Balanchine in 1942, and they moved to France, where she became the first American dancer to perform at the Paris Opera. Though she encountered some resistance as a Native American, she won audiences over with her performances. After returning to the United States, she became the ranking soloist—and the first American prima ballerina (leading dancer)—in the Balanchine Ballet Society (later known as the New York City Ballet). In 1949 Tallchief danced the leading role in Firebird, a part Balanchine choreographed (designed the dance steps) especially for her and remembered as one of her finest performances. A decade later she retired from performance and began directing her own ballet troupe. In later years she painstakingly revisited the leading role she created for Firebird for her students.
Tallchief’s dream of creating a Chicago-based resident ballet company first began to take form in 1974, when she was asked to develop a small troupe that would meet the needs of the Chicago Lyric Opera. In addition, she was invited to direct the Opera Ballet School. During her work there from 1974 to 1979, she established the same high standards for her students that she was given in her own training. An organizational split took place in January 1980. The Chicago City Ballet was formed when the Lyric Opera Ballet separated from the Lyric Opera.
Tallchief noted in an interview with John Gruen for Dance magazine that Balanchine—whom she divorced in 1952—“was forging a whole new technique—a whole new system of dancing. He literally created a new style of classical dancing—and that’s what we mustn’t lose. It’s what I’m promulgating [putting forward] at the Chicago City Ballet because I know it’s right.” Tallchief and the dancer/choreographer Paul Mejia seek to carry on Balanchine’s style and artistic vision at the Chicago City Ballet. Mejia, too, is a student of Balanchine’s, and he and Tallchief share a strong commitment to the late choreographer’s creative ideals.
Although Tallchief officially retired from dancing in 1966, she is remembered as a ballerina with an energy and style and a unique presence. In her interview with Gruen, Tallchief showed that the intensity of her youth burned on when she discussed working with her troupe: “What’s important is that I’m working with very talented young people. Yes, we’re in the process of growth, but I feel that if you have a choreographer like Paul Mejia and a syllabus based on Balanchine, you really can’t go wrong. What I do for the company is teach, and what I teach is what Balanchine taught me.” According to Gruen, Maria Tallchief “retains the dynamics that made her America’s prima ballerina for over two decades” and described her as “a figure still capable of making temperatures rise.”
Native North American Biography edited by Sharon Malinowski and Simon Glickman