The Silent Song of Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (1925-2013)

She was a trailblazer in many ways: the first Native American prima ballerina and the embodiment of a style that was revolutionizing ballet. But first and foremost was her stunning presence

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Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ballerina Maria Tallchief performing in "Swan Lake" in 1953.

Ballet is a series of the strictest, most rigid disciplines invented to portray ultimate suppleness and effortless musicality. And of all the ballerinas of the last century, few achieved Maria Tallchief’s artistry, a kind of conscious dreaming, a reverie with backbone. To George Balanchine, the choreographer who revolutionized ballet, she was both muse and, briefly, wife. She would admire him all her life—and help propagate his vision of dance with her own schools and students. The first Native American prima ballerina in history retired from regular performance in 1965. She died on Friday at the age of 88.

Betty Marie Tall Chief was born of an Osage Indian father and a Scotch-Irish mother in Oklahoma. Realizing that Betty Marie and her sister Marjorie’s talents for dance were not going to be cultivated in rural Oklahoma, their mother Ruth Tall Chief moved the family to California. There the girls eventually came under the tutelage of Bronislava Nijinkska, the sister of the legendary Russian danger Vaslav Nijinsky and a graduate of the grand ballet academies of the Tsars.

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In California, Tallchief recalled being discriminated against for the first time in her life as classmates reacted to her two-word surname with ignorant teasing (whooping in the style of Indian war cries; mock feather headdresses). Eventually, to help ease the confusion, she combined the two words of Tall Chief into one name. At 17, she moved to New York and joined the branch of the prestigious Ballet Russe associated with Balanchine. Eventually, she took on the stage name Maria Tallchief.

With her height (5’9”) and her high cheekbones, she was one of the most stunning presences on the stage of the Ballet Russe and, after 1948, the New York City Ballet, becoming the first prima ballerina of that company, Balanchine’s vehicle for transforming the art form. She originated the title role of The Firebird, an incredibly complex performance to Igor Stravinsky’s music, that caused a sensation in 1949 when it debuted in New York. In 1955, she was the first ballerina Balanchine cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy in what would become the company’s perpetual holiday offering, The Nutcracker Ballet.

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Her marriage to Balanchine lasted from 1946 to 1950 but they continued to work closely together after their divorce; and she would continue to star in ballets he created. In her autobiography Once a Dancer, Allegra Kent—a younger recruit at the company who would eventually become one of the New York City Ballet’s stars—recalls watching Tallchief perform and marveling at the woman from whom she received tutelage. “Her foot curled as the music curled, and then it extended as the sounds elongated. She moved quickly and the slowed down so that the endings matched perfectly, the movement and the music finishing together.”  Kent added, “She didn’t seem to be frightened of the stage, like some of the others. She had in iron will inside, and I never worried when I watched her dance. She phrased her curls and extensions as delicately or as strongly as the music itself. She was a silent song.” She was also a master in the perfect pause, the moment of stillness allowing the audience and the narrative to keep pace with the choreography.

After retiring from the New York City Ballet, Tallchief moved to Chicago where she was director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and later became the founder of the Chicago City Ballet. She would marry twice more after Balanchine, having two daughters with her third husband.
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