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Tallchief, Maria

Maria Tallchief

Born: January 24, 1925
Fairfax, Oklahoma

Native American dancer and choreographer

Maria Tallchief is a world-renowned ballerina and one of the premiere (first-ranking) American ballerinas of all time. She was the first American to dance at the Paris Opera and has danced with the Paris Opera Ballet, the Ballet Russe, and the Balanchine Ballet Society, later renamed the New York City Ballet.

Early years

Maria Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on January 24, 1925. Fairfax is located on the Osage Indian Reservation. Her grandfather had helped negotiate the treaty (agreement) that established the reservation and kept the tribe's right to own any minerals found on the land. When oil was discovered on the reservation, the Osage became the wealthiest Native American tribe in the country.

Maria's father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, an Osage Indian, was a wealthy real estate executive. Her mother, Ruth Mary Porter Tall Chief, was of Scottish and Irish ancestry. Eliza Big Heart, her grandmother, frequently took young Maria and her sister, Marjorie, to the ceremonial tribal dances.

Tallchief began ballet and piano lessons at the age of three and frequently performed before civic organizations in Osage County. By age eight she and her sister had exhausted the training resources in Oklahoma, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California. Although her mother hoped she would be a concert pianist, Tallchief devoted more and more of her time to dance. At one of her performances she devoted half of her program to the piano and half to dance.

By age twelve Tallchief was studying under Madame Nijinska, sister of the great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (18901950), and David Lichine, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (18821931).

When she was fifteen years old, Tallchief danced her first solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl in a number choreographed by Nijinska. Following her graduation from Beverly Hills High School in 1942, it was apparent that ballet would be Tallchief's life. Instead of college she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe based in New York City. She made her debut with the company in Canada. It was at this time that Marie Elizabeth Tall Chief changed her name to Maria Tallchief to give herself a more European image.

Early professional career

Initially Tallchief was treated with skepticism (uncertainty) by members of the Russian troupe, who were unwilling to acknowledge the Native American's greatness. When choreographer George Balanchine (19041983) took control of the company, however, he recognized Tallchief's talent. He selected her for the understudy role in The Song of Norway. Under Balanchine, Tallchief's reputation grew, and she was eventually given the title of ballerina. During this time, Tallchief married Balanchine. When he moved to Paris, France, she went with him.

As had happened with the Ballet Russe, Tallchief was initially treated as an inferior in Paris. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, and Tallchief's talent quickly won French audiences over. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia. She quickly became the ranking soloist and soon after joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now called the New York City Ballet.

Later career

At the New York City Ballet Tallchief became recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. When she became the prima (lead) ballerina, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title. She held that title for eighteen years, until she retired.

Tallchief left the New York City Ballet in 1966. She went on to found the Chicago City Ballet in 1981. She also served as the artistic director of that company through 1987. Tallchief had formed a strong relationship with the Chicago art community when she danced in a production of Orfeo ed Euridice with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1962.

Tallchief was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999.

For More Information

Browne, Vee. Maria Tallchief, Prima Ballerina. Parsippany, NJ: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.

Tallchief, Maria, and Larry Kaplan. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Gourley, Catherine. Who Is Maria Tallchief? New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2002.

Lang, Paul. Maria Tallchief: Native American Ballerina. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

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Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief (born 1925) is a world-renowned ballerina and one of the premiere American ballerinas of all time. She was the first American to dance at the Paris Opera and has danced with the Paris Opera Ballet, the Ballet Russe, and with the Balanchine Ballet Society (New York City Ballet).

Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on January 24, 1925. She was raised in a wealthy family. Her grandfather had helped negotiate the Osage treaty, which created the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma and later yielded a bonanza in oil revenues for some Osage people. Tallchief began dance and music lessons at age four. By age eight, she and her sister had exhausted the training resources in Oklahoma, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California. By age twelve, Tallchief was studying under Madame Nijinska (sister of the great Nijinsky) and David Lichine, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Pavlova. At age fifteen at the Hollywood Bowl, Tallchief danced her first solo performance in a number choreographed by Nijinska. Following high school, it was apparent that ballet would be Tallchief's life. Instead of college, she joined the Ballet Russe, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe. Tallchief was initially treated with skepticism—the Russian troupe was unwilling to recognize the Native American's greatness. When choreographer George Balanchine took control of the company, however, he recognized Tallchief's talent and selected her for the understudy role in The Song of Norway. Under Balanchine, Tallchief's reputation grew, and she was eventually given the title of ballerina. During this time, Tallchief married Balanchine, and when he moved to Paris, she went with him.

As with the Ballet Russe, Tallchief was initially treated with condescension in Paris. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, and Tallchief's talent quickly won French audiences over. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. She quickly became the ranking soloist and, soon after, joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now the New York City Ballet. At the New York City Ballet, Tallchief became recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. When she became the prima ballerina, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title. In 1949, Tallchief danced what was perhaps her greatest role in the Balanchine-choreographed version of the Firebird. Balanchine had choreographed the role for Tallchief, and her dazzling blend of physical control and mysticism enchanted audiences. In the late 1950s, Tallchief retired from performances and took charge of the Chicago City Ballet. □

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Tallchief, Maria

Maria Tallchief, 1925–2013, American ballerina, b. Fairfax, Okla. Tallchief, of Osage descent, was trained both as a pianist and a dancer. Deciding on a career in ballet, she studied under Bronislava Nijinska, Ernest Belcher, and George Balanchine, whom she later married. A fiery and passionate dancer, she performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1942 to 1947, when she joined the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet). Tallchief was particularly known for her performance of The Firebird (1949), a ballet created for her by Balanchine. Through 18 years as the City Ballet's prima ballerina and through her tours and television appearances with the American Ballet Theatre and other companies in the 1960s, Tallchief contributed greatly to the fame and prestige of American ballet.

See her autobiography (1997, with L. Kaplan).



Her younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, 1927–, b. Denver Colo., was première danseuse with the Paris Opéra Ballet from 1957 to 1962. She also performed with many other companies, retiring in 1966.

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"Tallchief, Maria." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Tallchief, Maria." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tallchief-maria