Maria Tallchief was one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, and she helped bring it into the U.S. mainstream. In doing so, the talent not only blazed an unforgettable trail, but she also dealt with racism throughout her career, too. Though despite those prejudices, Tallchief proved that small-town American girls could jeté with the best of them.
The world of ballet was dominated by Russians when Tallchief was learning her craft. Not only were two of the world’s most famous ballet companies based in Russia, but the country also boasted some of the best dancers at the time, too. Indeed, the mixture of technique, strength and fantastical storytelling displayed by the dancers there raised the art form to new heights.
American ballerinas were often looked down upon by their Russian counterparts at the time. And several companies teaching the artform in the latter country are still operating today, while some of the innovations endure as well. For instance, they include that now-essential bit of kit: the tutu.
The Romantic movement over a century earlier saw ballerinas begin to wear more revealing attire and perform narratives revolving around folklore spirits and traditional culture. Hand-in-hand with those elaborate outfits came more dramatic, impassioned performances, which in turn demanded ever higher standards of virtuosity among the dancers.
The aforementioned culture within the ballet world endured many years later as the young Tallchief began dancing at the age of three. Though right from the start, the little girl had two unique traits which may have worked against her dreams of becoming a ballerina. Not only was Tallchief an American, she was also bi-racial.
Tallchief had to overcome anti-American prejudice in the world of ballet over the course of her life. But she also had to fight racism elsewhere, too, as she had both Native American and Irish-Scottish parents. Tallchief was always proud of her indigenous heritage and a family history that can be traced back for hundreds of years.
Tallchief’s family are part of the Osage Nation and have a long, notable history. They played a big part in the tribe’s negotiations with the U.S. government, but long before then, the Native Americans had been victim to the spread of settlers. Having slowly made their way west over the centuries, they were forcibly moved ever further on in subsequent years.
By the 19th century the Osage were well established in Kansas, where they farmed, hunted and tried to maintain their traditional way of life. But following the end of the Civil War, many indigenous groups including the Osage were moved even further west by the United States government. The resulting forced migration saw the deaths of thousands of Native Americans from sickness and starvation – long before they reached the appointed Indian Territory.
Fortunes for the Osage changed, however, after their arrival in modern-day Olkahoma. Oil was discovered, and this is where Tallchief’s family helped make history. Chief Peter Bigheart – great-grandfather of the future dancer – helped broker a deal with the U.S. government. And that agreement guaranteed each Osage member rights to the black stuff for the rest of their lives.
As Tallchief wrote for The New York Times in 1997, “When daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land and overnight the tribe became rich.” And this meant that the future dancer had a fairly privileged upbringing. She recalled, “As a young girl growing up on the Osage reservation in Fairfax, Oklahoma, I felt my father owned the town.”
Tallchief went on, “[My dad] had property everywhere. The local movie theater on Main Street and the pool hall opposite belonged to him. Our ten-room terracotta brick house stood high on a hill overlooking the reservation.”
But the young Tallchief’s education in the finer things in life didn’t end there. Thanks to her mother Ruth Porter, the future ballerina began dance and piano lessons at the age of just three. And it was her mom’s insistence on arts training that would eventually set Tallchief on the path to stardom. Along the way, though, the family’s heritage would be both celebrated and denigrated.
Tallchief’s father Alexander was reportedly quite the catch as a young man. As she told The New York Times, “Six-foot-two, he walked with a sturdy gait and loved to hunt. Daddy was extremely handsome… With his string aquiline profile, [he] resembled the Indian on the buffalo head nickel.”
By the 1920s Alexander was a widower – his first wife having died several years earlier. And he chanced upon Ruth while out visiting his mother Eliza. Tallchief recalled in The New York Times, “… I’m told there was an instant attraction between them.”
The couple quickly married, and they welcomed their first daughter – originally named Elizabeth Marie – soon afterwards. Tallchief herself later followed, with her sister Marjorie and brother Jerry entering the world after that. Tallchief and her older sister soon showed an aptitude for dancing and music, and their mom made plans to move the family to a place where their talents could be expanded.
In 1933 Tallchief and her family made the move to Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. The ballerina recalled to The New York Times, “Public schools in Beverly Hills were academically superior to those in the rest of the city, and mother made the move so we could attend a public school. But at Beverly Vista School I was made to feel different.”
Tallchief went on, “Some of the students made fun of my last name. A few made war whoops whenever they saw me and asked why I didn’t wear feathers or if my father took scalps.” As a result, the future star changed her two-word last name to read as a single word. She recalled, “… The experience was painful.”
Following the family’s move to Los Angeles, the girls had continued their ballet training under a new teacher. The pair progressed far enough to appear regularly in recitals, though someone apparently hit upon the idea that the sisters should perform a Native American dance. The result, however, made them uncomfortable.
Tallchief wrote in The New York Times, “The routine we performed made us both self-conscious. It wasn’t remotely authentic. Traditionally, women didn’t dance in Indian tribal ceremonies.” And the costumes weren’t much better. She added, “I had toe shoes on underneath my moccasins and we both wore fringed buckskin outfits, headbands with feathers and bells on our legs.”
It would be several years before Tallchief finally decided to become a dancer. Prior to that, her apparent perfect pitch meant that her mother had suggested she become a concert pianist. So, it took a very special instructor to pull the youngster around to ballet. And that was the Imperial Ballet School-trained former star of Russia’s Ballet Russe: Bronislava Nijinska.
The then-12-year-old Tallchief was immediately taken with Nijinska. The ballerina recalled to The New York Times, “She had incredible personal magnetism and she radiated authority. I was under her spell. The likes of Madam Nijinska were something I had never seen before.” Under the Russian’s tutelage, the young girl made a life-changing decision. She later explained, “In her studio, I became committed to becoming a ballerina.”
Tallchief’s talents blossomed under the tutelage of Nijinska. The instructor rewarded her hard work with a lead role in a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. And despite falling early in her appearance, Tallchief picked herself up and gave it her everything. She later recalled, “… Once I [had] recovered my nerves, I attempted to perform as Madame Nijinska had taught me.”
Tallchief later graduated from high school and landed a small role in a Julie Garland movie. She apparently enjoyed dancing for the camera in Presenting Lily Mars, though it couldn’t hold a candle to performing on stage. So the high school graduate left Los Angeles for New York – determined to perform for a living.
In 1942 Tallchief auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo while on the East Coast. The touring company mostly consisted of people with Nansen passports, and World War II – which was ongoing – meant that they could not travel. However, this also gave Tallchief her big break.
But this new opportunity didn’t signal the end of the prejudice against Tallchief. While working for the company it was suggested that she change her last name. The far more Russian moniker “Tolchieva” was proffered, but the young woman refused. She did, however, make one concession; her first name became the now-familiar Maria.
Tallchief’s first solo role came during her debut season with Ballet Russe in 1943. And the company even began promoting its new star as the “beautiful dancing Osage.” Despite this dubious honor, the talent’s time at the company put her on the path to international stardom. While at the company, she also became the muse – and later wife – of ballet master George Balanchine.
Balanchine joined as a choreographer during Tallchief’s second year with the company. Soon, the star was performing in a number of revivals such as Le Baiser de la Fée. Balanchine gradually helped shape Tallchief into the master’s vision of the perfect ballerina, but that took an enormous amount of work.
Tallchief starred in nearly every ballet Balanchine choreographed for several years, according to The Guardian. Each role was meticulously designed or tweaked to extend her technique, strength and virtuosity. The newspaper added that the dancer later recalled having worked so hard that “the very proportions of my body – the configuration of my legs and torso – were different.”
And no wonder Tallchief’s body had changed. By the time the star was working with Balanchine she claimed to have been working a whopping 14 hours of hard work a day. As a result of this intensive improvement, the couple kicked off a sea-change in the art form itself.
Before that, though, Tallchief achieved an amazing achievement. She became the only American to grace the prestigious Paris Opera stage for over a century. And soon, any remaining European snootiness towards U.S. ballerinas was quickly dissipated whenever Tallchief began performing. On her return to New York in 1947, she joined Balanchine’s new troupe, which is now known as New York City Ballet.
Tallchief starred in and created numerous iconic roles while at the company. But it was her performance in Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird that brought the dancer international fame. According to the Library of Congress, one reviewer gushed, “[Tallchief] preened, she shimmered, she glorified in speed and airy freedom.”
Tallchief and Balanchine continued to work together even after their marriage broke down in 1950. She even earned the title Prima Ballerina for the company – a position she held for many years. Not only was Tallchief the first American to ever receive the accolade, the dancer was also the first Native American to achieve it.
The title Prima Ballerina is only awarded to those women whose talent and strength exceeds that of the other dancers in the company. But it wasn’t just the ballet world showing their appreciation for the star’s hard work and determination.
In 1953 the Osage Nation also celebrated Tallchief’s success in the world of ballet. They awarded the dancer with the title Princess Wa-Txthe-thonba – or the Woman of Two Standards. That same year, the Oklahoma state authorities named June 23 Maria Tallchief Day. And while these are dizzy heights indeed, her career still had a long way to go.
The following year, Tallchief’s appearance in The Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy received rave reviews. They praised the dancer’s aptitude for pulling off seemingly impossible moves with such ease. Her performance helped turn what at the time was a fairly obscure form of ballet into one of the world’s most popular.
In 1954 Tallchief once again made history as the highest-paid ballet dancer in the world. She appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in October that year and the story mentioned how much she would be earning. Apparently, she’d taken up an offer from Ballet Russe to work as their principal dancer, and the salary was a whopping $2,000 a week – or around $20,000 in today’s money.
But Tallchief didn’t just break barriers as a dancer, she also helped bring ballet to the masses in the United States. Many of the Prima Ballerina’s performances were televised, and the viewing public could bathe in her considerable talents through these free-to-air performances.
In 1960 Tallchief added yet another first to her collection. She became the first American-born ballerina to grace the stage at the world-famous Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. It seems, thanks to her, that American ballet was finally accepted in the then-Soviet Union.
Furthermore, Tallchief continued to influence the ballet world even after her retirement in 1965. By this point, she had moved to Chicago after her marriage to construction company executive Henry Paschen, Jr. Nineteen years later she set up and taught the art form at the Lyric Opera. Following that, she and her sister Marjorie – who was also a ballerina – founded the Chicago City Ballet. But Tallchief’s influence would stretch far beyond her lifetime.
Tallchief died in 2013 – having made history her entire life. After retirement, she received a number of accolades including the National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And in 2020 the University of Oklahoma announced two dance scholarships named after the Prima Ballerina and her sister. A spokesperson for the school said, “We are happy to honor the amazing accomplishments of Maria Tallchief and Marjorie Tallchief in this way. Our hope is that others will join us to provide a lasting legacy and support future generations of dancers.”