Posts Tagged ‘maria tallchief’

Photo: New York City Ballet Archives.
Maria Tallchief in the title role in George Balanchine’s ballet “Firebird.”

When I was a child, I was taken a couple times to see “The Nutcracker” at the New York City Ballet. I went backstage to see the ballerinas after the show and got autographs on slips of paper that, of course, I managed to lose. I got Patricia McBride. I got Maria Tallchief. Recently, I read an obit about Tallchief that filled in some blanks in her remarkable history.

Jack Anderson reported at the New York Times, “Maria Tallchief, a daughter of an Oklahoma oil family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century, died [in April 2013] in Chicago. …

“A former wife and muse of the choreographer George Balanchine, Ms. Tallchief achieved renown with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, dazzling audiences with her speed, energy and fire. Indeed, the part that catapulted her to acclaim, in 1949, was the title role in the company’s version of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird,’ one of many that Balanchine created for her. …

“A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the state nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas. …

“She was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on Jan. 24, 1925 in a small hospital in Fairfax, Okla. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a 6-foot-2 full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized. … Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, met Mr. Tall Chief, a widower, while visiting her sister, who was a cook and housekeeper for Mr. Tall Chief’s mother.

“ ‘When Daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land, and overnight the tribe became rich,’ Ms. Tallchief recounted in ‘Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina,’ her 1997 autobiography written with Larry Kaplan. …

“She had her first ballet lessons in Colorado Springs, where the family had a summer home. She also studied piano and, blessed with perfect pitch, contemplated becoming a concert pianist.

“But dance occupied her attention after the family, feeling confined in Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when she was 8. The day they arrived, her mother took her daughters into a drugstore for a snack at the soda fountain. While waiting for their order, Mrs. Tall Chief chatted with a druggist and asked him if he knew of a good dancing teacher. He recommended Ernest Belcher.

As Ms. Tallchief recalled in her memoir, ‘An anonymous man in an unfamiliar town decided our fate with those few words.’

“Mr. Belcher, the father of the television and film star Marge Champion, was an excellent teacher, and Ms. Tallchief soon realized that her training in Oklahoma had been potentially ruinous to her limbs. At 12 she started studies with Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who had opened a studio in Los Angeles. …

“Tatiana Riabouchinska became her chaperon on a trip to New York City, which, since the outbreak of World War II, had become the base of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a leading touring company. She joined the troupe in 1942.

“Nijinska, one of its choreographers, cast her in some of her ballets. But Ms. Tallchief also danced in Agnes de Mille’s ‘Rodeo,’ a pioneering example of balletic Americana. It was de Mille who suggested that Elizabeth Marie make Maria Tallchief her professional name. Her sister, who survives her, went on to achieve fame mostly in Europe.

“In the summer of 1944, the entire Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo served as the dance ensemble for ‘Song of Norway,’ a Broadway musical based on the life and music of Grieg, with choreography by Balanchine. And Balanchine remained as a resident choreographer for the company. …

“Balanchine paid increasing attention to Ms. Tallchief, and she became increasingly fond of him, admiring him as a choreographic genius and liking him as a courtly, sophisticated friend. Yet it came as an utter surprise when he asked her to marry him. After careful thought, she agreed, and they were married on Aug. 16, 1946. …

“Balanchine wanted a company of his own. In 1946, he and the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein established Ballet Society, which presented a series of subscription performances; it was a direct forerunner of today’s City Ballet. … Ms. Tallchief was soon acclaimed as one of its stars. …

“Ms. Tallchief remained closely identified with her Osage lineage long after she found fame and glamour in Paris and New York, and she bridled at the enduring stereotypes and misconceptions many held about American Indians. Recalling her youth in her memoir, she wrote of a dance routine that she and her sister were asked to perform at Oklahoma country fairs. …

” ‘It wasn’t remotely authentic,’ she wrote. … The performance ended with Marjorie performing ‘no-handed back-flip somersaults. In the end, [we] stopped doing the routine because we outgrew the costumes. I was relieved when we put those bells away for good.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here, and at the Library of Congress, here.

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My parents sometimes took me to the New York City ballet when I was little, and once or twice we went backstage. I think I got the autograph of Maria Tallchief, but I was too young to be careful with it for a lifetime.

Recently, I was interested to see an article by Allison Meier on Tallchief and four other American Indian ballet dancers. I had not known there were five. The article is at the website Hypoallergic, and the lead came from ArtsJournal.com.

Meier writes, “Five dancers who started their careers in the 1940s redefined dance in the United States, becoming some of the first American prima ballerinas in the world’s top companies, from the Ballets Russes to the Paris Opera Ballet. And they were all American Indians from Oklahoma.

“Yvonne Chouteau, one of the ‘Five Moons,’ as they were anointed, died [January 24] at the age of 86. Along with Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee, 1925–2012), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920–2008), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage, b. 1926), and, most famously, Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925–2013), she rose in the ranks of dance when ballet was still not widely appreciated in this country. The women had distinct careers, but they all danced when they were young at powows and caught performances by the traveling Ballets Russes and other companies, propelling them to study professionally. …

“Nora Boustany wrote in Hightower’s Los Angeles Times obituary that the women’s ‘remarkable accomplishments showcased American dance and talent to the world when Russian stars still dominated that scene.’

“And as Larkin said in a short documentary produced by NewsOK: ‘It’s not just a fluke that we are all Native Americans and that we all became dancers.’

“In the Oklahoma State Capitol, a mural of the five dancers adorns the rotunda. Painted by Mike Larsen, it shows them posed in white tutus, the shadows of the Trail of Tears behind them. Each had a unique style and left her own legacy, but together they promoted their indigenous heritage through the art of dance.”

More here.

Photo: Roger Wood
Maria Tallchief in ‘Swan Lake’ in 1952. (The photo is housed at the New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

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