The brilliant Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief died Thursday at the age of 88. Tallchief is remembered as one of the great ballet stars of the 20th century. In her New York Times obituary, the dancer and choreographer Jacques d’Amboise is quoted as comparing Tallchief to the legendary dancers Galina Ulanova of the Soviet Union and Margot Fonteyn of Britain: “When you thought of Russian ballet, it was Ulanova. With English ballet, it was Fonteyn. For American ballet, it was Tallchief. She was grand in the grandest way.”
Tallchief was born on January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Osage Indian whose family became wealthy when oil was discovered on their land. When she was eight years old her family moved to Los Angeles, partly so that she and her younger sister Marjorie could find better dance instruction. Tallchief showed early promise and eventually became a student of the Russian émigré dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. In 1942 she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York, where it was based during World War II. In New York, Tallchief quickly grew to prominence, attracting the attention of the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who became the first of her three husbands.
The clip above, from the 1989 film Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas, shows Tallchief reminiscing about Balanchine and dancing the title role in his 1949 New York City Ballet production of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. Balanchine choreographed the ballet especially for Tallchief, and it became her signature role. The sets and costumes of the 1949 production were designed by Marc Chagall. “Maria Tallchief made an electrifying appearance,” wrote the impressario Lincoln Kirstein after the opening of Firebird, “emerging as the nearest approximation to a prima ballerina that we had yet enjoyed.”
For more of Tallchief’s dancing, see the film clip below of her and Rudolf Nureyev, in his American debut, dancing the pas de deux from the August Bouronville ballet, The Flower Festival in Genzano. The performance was broadcast on the Bell Telephone Hour on January 19, 1962, less than a year after Nureyev’s defection to the West and four years before Tallchief’s retirement as a dancer.