Tallchief, Maria (1925—)

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Tallchief, Maria (1925—)

Osage dancer, noted for many roles with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and New York City Ballet, who was the first Native American to achieve the stature of prima ballerina in the United States. Name variations: Betty Marie Tall Chief. Born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma; daughter of Alexander Tall Chief (a real estate investor) and Ruth (Porter) Tall Chief; sister of Marjorie Tallchief (b. 1927); graduated from Beverly Hills High School in California, 1942; married George Balanchine (the choreographer), in 1946 (annulled 1950); married Elmourza Natirboff (a charter plane pilot), in 1952 (divorced 1954); married Henry D. Paschen, Jr. (a construction company executive), in 1956; children: (third marriage) Elise Maria Paschen (b. 1959).

Moved with family to Los Angeles, California (1933); made first appearance as a soloist in Chopin Concerto, in Los Angeles (1940); toured as a member of the corps de ballet of the Ballet Russe de MonteCarlo, then joined the company (1942); premiered two roles with the Ballet Russe (1946); joined husband George Balanchine at the Paris Opera, where she danced the role of Terpsichore in the premiere of Apollo (1947); joined Ballet Society, soon renamed the New York City Ballet (1947); appeared in movie The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952); was the first Native American to achieve the rank of prima ballerina in the U.S. (1954); retired from New York City Ballet (1965); after period as artistic director for the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, co-founded Chicago City Ballet with her sister Marjorie Tallchief (1980).

Notable roles:

The ice-fairy queen in Le Baiser de la Fée and Coquette in Night Shadow, for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; Terpsichore in Apollo, for the Paris Opera Ballet; Eurydice in Orpheus, Firebird in The Firebird, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker for Ballet Society-New York City Ballet.

Maria Tallchief's mother dreamed of her daughter becoming a concert pianist, and the child worked hard to please her, but ballet was what held her spellbound from the time of her first dance lessons at age four. Tallchief practiced the piano faithfully, mainly to get the music behind her so that she could spend more hours dancing. A music recital at age 12 demonstrated her true loyalties, when she arranged to play the piano for the first half of the program and dance for the second. Her musical training would in fact complement her dancing gifts as she rose through the ranks to become a world-renowned dancer and the first Native American prima ballerina in the United States.

She was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, a small town on the Osage reservation. Her father Alexander Tall Chief was a real-estate investor whose grandfather had helped negotiate land agreements for the Osage people with the U.S. government in the late 19th century. Alexander's second wife Ruth Porter Tall Chief was of Dutch, Irish and Scottish ancestry, and the couple had three children: Maria (who was called Betty), Marjorie Tallchief , two years younger, who would also become a dancer, and Gerald. The family lived in a large house in Fairfax, and the children considered the town their playground. A dance teacher came from Tulsa to give the Tallchief sisters lessons at home, and several buildings and businesses carried the family name.

Alexander and Ruth balanced each other. He was easygoing; she was strict. He was comfortable in Fairfax; she wanted to live in an area that would offer more music and dance training opportunities for her daughters. In 1933, the family moved to Los Angeles, where famous dancers taught in Beverly Hills studios. The girls' first new teacher was horrified at the acrobatic nature of their training, as well as the fact that they had been allowed to dance en pointe—in hard toe shoes—at such an early age. While he immediately started them on a beginning study of movement, the piano lessons continued, emphasized by Ruth and tolerated by Maria.

While a student at Beverly Hills High School, Maria began studying dance under Bronislava Nijinska , a former choreographer with the Ballet Russe and sister of the famed Russian dancer Vladislav Nijinsky. Ruth Tall Chief, intent on her daughters being well rounded, had insisted on their being schooled with students their own age. With her strong desire to please, Maria met her mother's high expectations; this penchant for hard work and perfection was to be the guiding principle of her career. The Tallchief sisters also studied with David Lichine and became friends with his wife, prima ballerina Tatiana Riabouchinska . In 1940, at age 15, Maria danced her first premiere role, in Nijinska's Chopin Concerto; Marjorie also appeared in the production, as did Cyd Charisse , who later became famous as a dancer and actress in film. When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came through Los Angeles that year on its annual tour, Nijinska took the Tallchief sisters backstage. The company's director, who had visited Nijinska's studio and conducted classes in search of promising students, told Maria that the Ballet Russe might someday have a place for her, if she worked hard.

Tallchief graduated from high school in 1942. Her mother wanted her to go to college and wait for Marjorie to complete high school before the two considered joining a ballet company. That summer, Maria danced with the corps de ballet for the Judy Garland film Presenting Lily Mars. On the day the job ended, Riabouchinska invited her to go to New York to try out for the Ballet Russe, where she might be able to dance until it was time to go to college. Arriving there, Tallchief found a place to live and took dance classes while waiting for an audition with the director of the Ballet Russe, who was preparing the company for a Canadian tour. World War II was then under way in Europe, and some Russian members of the company had been caught in America, unable to return to their country. In class, Maria generated interest among these highly trained dancers, including

one who was manager of a rival dance company, Ballet Theater.

Finally, Maria had her audition, and was accepted into the corps of the Ballet Russe for its Canadian tour. Over the next several months, she learned the rigors of the life of a young corps dancer: traveling from place to place, constantly washing and repairing costumes, practicing long hours and then waiting for the word to perform or to return to the dressing room. She also learned that ballet had its political side, with a strict hierarchy of dancers within the company. Even among lowly corps members she observed the temperaments at work, the intense competition for roles, and the enmities for slights real and imagined. Meanwhile, she worked hard, learned new roles quickly, and was given some solo roles that brought her to the attention of the company's influential dancers. Friends in California had found Maria to be serious and sensitive but forthright, loyal and even merry once she gave her trust. In the intense atmosphere of the tour, however, Tallchief withdrew and gained a reputation for being aloof. She wrote in one of her daily letters home: "You cannot know what it is like to be the newest one in a ballet company. But I am learning and I see why things are as they are for me. Don't worry. I'll survive, no doubt. What matters is that I am dancing."

Tallchief had a mystery about her.

—Olga Maynard

Despite the cold Canadian weather and the frigid treatment from other dancers, Tallchief knew she would not be attending college at the end of the tour. Instead, she joined the corps of the Ballet Russe, and the issue then arose as to what to do about her name. In dance, the names of performers were closely associated with the history of the profession. Although ballet had originated in France, it had been dominated for many years by the influence of the great Russian dance schools and performers, and it was common practice among European and American dancers to enhance their careers with Russian-sounding names. At the Ballet Russe, the director now told several new members of the company, including Betty Marie Tall Chief, to take on names with "theatrical substance." One suggestion was to change Tall Chief to the Russian-sounding "Tallchieva." After long discussions with her friend and fellow dancer Mia Slavenska , Betty Marie agreed to take the name Maria. She refused to give up her surname, consenting only to condensing it to the word Tallchief.

In the 1942 fall season, Tallchief continued to draw attention outside the ballet corps. In October, she danced a walk-on in Rodeo, choreographed by Agnes de Mille , who called her performance "lyric, beautiful and evocative acting in the highest sense." But Tallchief yearned to dance the ballets of Nijinska, especially the Concerto she had performed in Los Angeles. It became her obsession to learn all the major roles, in all their variations. Continuing to study, practice, and "understudy everybody, even the understudies," she sometimes kept friendships at bay, and was resented by corps members who thought her driven approach made them appear lazy. Lonely in this chilly environment, she only worked harder. Her thoughts were now centered completely on her career.

Following a tour, the Ballet Russe was scheduled to open in New York once more. On Christmas Eve, Tallchief learned that a ballerina had left the troupe, and there was a possibility that she herself might be the replacement in her beloved Concerto. She practiced feverishly for the next two days and was waiting in the wings when she was told that another dancer would perform the role. Back in her room, Tallchief wrote home of her disappointment and of the company politics that lay behind it. For days, the episode was the topic of gossip within the tight little world of ballet: it was said that prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova had refused to dance with a corps girl, especially because Tallchief was "extraordinary … en pointe." At a New Year's Eve party, Danilova explained her position, in a way that Tallchief described as "very, very nice," and said she thought there might be a small role for her in another ballet, but the hurt remained. Meanwhile, she became even more obsessed with perfecting each of the major Concerto roles. She spent longer hours in rehearsal, lost sleep and weight, and fought off the colds making the rounds through the company that winter.

Her opportunity to perform in Concerto finally arrived in May 1943, when soloist Nathalie Krassovska hurt her foot. Tallchief, who still had a cold, tied her shoe ribbons and wiped her runny nose while waiting to go on. "As soon as I came off stage," she wrote, "Mme Slavenska was waiting, to tell me I had done wonderfully. Then came Mia…. Mme Danilova … smiled and said she wanted to congratulate me." Tallchief remained in Concerto through a tour of the New England states, but no changes were made in her billing or noted at performances. Krassovska left the company after the tour, and Tallchief's rise in status was indicated by the listing of her name in the ballet program. Her New York debut, at age 18, was well received by the critics, and when a friend told her that the American girls in the corps were bragging about her, she wrote to the family that this was the "best of all."

At the end of the season, Tallchief went home on vacation with an offer for a two-year contract with the Ballet Russe. Because she was still underage, her parents' signatures were required for the contract. Ruth Tall Chief refused to sign, having heard rumors that Krassovska planned to return to the company and that a new choreographer would be bringing in his own protegées. That autumn, Tallchief returned to the company expecting her chances to perform to be even slimmer. Indeed, with the changes wrought by recently hired choreographer George Balanchine, Tallchief received only one role for the season, until Nijinska returned and assigned her another. Balanchine had also been hired to choreograph a Broadway production, Song of Norway, for which he used the Ballet Russe corps on stage; Tallchief served as understudy to the prima ballerina. When the Ballet Russe left the show to mount its annual season, she refused an offer to stay behind on Broadway and take over the show's lead role. By this time, Marjorie had joined Ballet Theater, and the two drew attention not only because they were sisters but because they were Native Americans. As dancers, Maria was considered "symphonic" and an extraordinary technician, while Marjorie was admired for her flair and speed.

Though Maria still looked quite young and dressed like a schoolgirl, she had developed a repertoire and matured greatly as an artist; with her strength, technique and musicality, she was becoming what would eventually be known as the perfect Balanchine dancer. In 1946, Tallchief premiered two roles, the ice-fairy queen in Le Baiser de la Fée and the Coquette in Night Shadow. Late that summer, after he divorced Vera Zorina , Tallchief quietly became Balanchine's fourth wife. Awed by the great choreographic genius, she could not imagine refusing him, despite their lack of an ordinary courtship. And Balanchine, while drawn to her potential as a dancer under his tutelage, was "also very taken by her Indian heritage," wrote one biographer. "It made him feel that in marrying her he was becoming really American."

Soon after the wedding, Balanchine resigned from the Ballet Russe to form his own company, Ballet Society. Remaining behind to fulfill her contract, Tallchief found that she lacked good new roles after his departure, although she nonetheless collected quite a following of fans on tour. Without Balanchine, however, the Ballet Russe deteriorated to a degree that shocked its audiences. As competition increased and many new young dancers came onto the scene, the company also fared badly in the competitive "ballet wars." In 1947, Balanchine accepted an invitation from the Paris Opera, and Tallchief made plans to join him that summer after her contract expired. Her dancing was better than ever, she had box-office appeal, and she was only one step away from the rank of ballerina. Friends were concerned, however, that Ballet Society would offer few opportunities for her to develop, and that the company itself would fail.

In May, Tallchief joined Balanchine in Paris and danced Terpsichore in Apollo. Making her international debut at age 22, she was the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet since 1839, and she was a stunning success. The couple returned to New York for the 1948 season of Ballet Society, which changed its name to the New York City Ballet. That year, Tallchief received the annual Dance Magazine Award for her role as Eurydice in Orpheus. The season also saw the premiere of the ballet perhaps most associated with Maria Tallchief, Balanchine's Firebird, to music by Stravinsky. In November, clothed in the flame-colored costume of the Firebird, with crimson shoes and a feathered plume on her head, her arms and shoulders covered with gold-dust powder, she stunned both audiences and critics with her technique and fire, personifying the Russian folktale character. Amazement at her performance was universal, and controversy about the choreography added to the interest as audiences crowded into the company's theatrical home at City Center. Demand for tickets was so high that performances had to be added; the company made money for the first time. Although the New York City Ballet did not officially follow the old custom of ranking its dancers, Tallchief was now recognized as a full-fledged ballerina, onstage and off.

In 1951, Tallchief danced with Andrè Eglevsky, creating a dazzling new partnership for Balanchine's existing and new pas de deux roles. In both America and Europe, she continued to receive the highest accolades, dominating ballet headlines throughout the decade. After highly successful tours with the New York City Ballet and as a guest artist with Ballet Russe, she was firmly established, recognized internationally as the first prima ballerina. News reports emphasized her Russian imperial style of dance and her American, particularly Native American, origin. When New York City Ballet mounted a full-length production of The Nutcracker in 1954, she danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy; reviews noted her prima ballerina qualities, her "technical accomplishments … of secondary note to her authority and radiance."

During the 1950s, Tallchief's personal life remained generally unknown to the public. Her marriage to Balanchine was annulled in 1950, reportedly because she wanted children and he did not, and the two afterwards maintained a professional relationship at New York City Ballet. A marriage to charter airplane pilot Elmourza Natirboff ended in divorce in 1954. In 1956, she married Henry D. Paschen, Jr., a Chicago construction company executive; their daughter Elise Maria Paschen was born in January 1959.

Tallchief danced with the American Ballet Theater in 1960 before returning to the New York City Ballet. In 1963, she traveled to her hometown of Fairfax for a tribal celebration, in which she was conferred the honorary name Wa-Xthe-Thonba (Woman of Two Standards or Two Worlds), chosen by her grandmother. The Council of Fire paid tribute four years later with the Indian Achievement Award.

In 1965, just after the launch of the New York City Ballet's new season, Tallchief surprised the ballet world by announcing her retirement. "I got tired of people stopping me on the street to ask where I was dancing now," she remarked. "As I've said before, I don't mind being listed alphabetically but I do mind being treated alphabetically." She was 40 years old, and according to news accounts, Balanchine believed that 40 was the age at which a ballerina should retire. Nonetheless, for a time she continued to appear as a guest artist with American and international companies. Tallchief eventually became artistic director for the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet. In 1980, with her sister Marjorie, she became a cofounder of the Chicago City Ballet. Years earlier, in 1965, the Capezio Dance Award perhaps best acknowledged the impact of Maria Tallchief on the world of dance: "[A]s an American ballerina, she has brought lustre to American ballet itself, contributing immeasurably in placing it on an equal aesthetic footing with the ballet standards of those European cultures which first nurtured the art of ballet."


Champagne, Duane, ed. The Native North American Almanac. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

Clarke, Mary, and David Vaughan, eds. The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet. NY: Putnam, 1977.

Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara Naomi. Biographical Dictionary of Dance. NY: Schirmer, 1982.

The Dance Encyclopedia. Compiled and edited by Anatole Chujoy and P.W. Manchester. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Erdrich, Heidi Ellen. Maria Tallchief. Illustrations by Rick Whipple. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1993.

"I Cannot Wait," in Newsweek. October 25, 1965, p. 100.

Maynard, Olga. Bird of Fire: The Story of Maria Tallchief. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1961.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Liberty's Women. Springfield, MA: G.&C. Merriam, 1980.

Taper, Bernard. Balanchine: A Biography. NY: Macmillan, 1974.

suggested reading:

Balanchine, George. Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Edited by Francis Mason. Drawings by Marta Becket . Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

De Leeuw, Adele. Maria Tallchief: American Ballerina. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1971.

Myers, Elisabeth P. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967.

Tallchief, Maria, with Larry Kaplan. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. NY: Henry Holt, 1997.

Tobias, Tobi. Maria Tallchief. NY: Crowell, 1970.


Dance Collection at the New York Public Library.

Margaret L. Meggs , independent scholar, Havre, Montana

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Tallchief, Maria (1925—)

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