Remembering Maria Tallchief, America’s Great Prima Ballerina

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.

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Comments (4)
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  • RichStine says:

    What an amaz­ing, Amer­i­can sto­ry! What an amaz­ing, NATIVE Amer­i­can woman!
    Yay! Good Role Mod­els!

  • Robert Kerrigan says:

    This lady danced the way a pri­ma bal­le­ri­na was sup­posed to move, using every bone and mus­cle in her beau­ti­ful body.
    What a gift she was giv­en, and yet, she shared that gift with us!
    May she rest in eter­nal peace!

  • lawrence t. queen says:

    most of all, per­haps, the great­ness of this superb bal­le­ri­na, was her firm­ness in pride for her native amer­i­can blood­line. huz­zah!

  • Kiara says:

    Maria is a huge inspi­ra­tion to myself and all oth­er dancers, she has shown me a lot and read­ing about her is teach­ing me many many things.

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