Woman of the Week: Maria Tallchief
“Above all, I wanted to be appreciated as a prima ballerina who happened to be a Native American, never as someone who was an American Indian ballerina.”
Maria Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on January 24, 1925. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tallchief, was a member of the Osage Nation; while her mother, Ruth Porter, was of Scottish and Irish decent. Tallchief’s paternal great-grandfather, Peter Bigheart, helped negotiate matters concerning oil revenues that enriched the Osage Nation. As a result of these negotiations Tallchief’s father grew up wealthy and never had to work a day in his life. Her childhood home was a 10 room terracotta-brick house that stood on a hill overlooking the reservation. Although she was privileged financially, her family was not without its problems. Tallchief’s father was a binge drinker, and her parents would often be found fighting about money.
Ruther Tallchief had dreamed of becoming a performer in her own childhood, but was unable to pursue this dream because her family could not afford lessons. Ruth did not want this to be the case for her own children, and quickly enrolled them in different types of the performing arts. At the age of three Tallchief began to take ballet and piano lessons. In 1930, a ballet teacher from Tulsa, Mrs. Sabin, and visited Fairfax looking for potential students and quickly took in Tallchief and her young sister Marjorie. Looking back on the experience Tallchief remarked that it was a miracle that she wasn’t permanently harmed from lessons with Mrs. Sabin because the teacher had Tallchief begin pointe ballet at the age of 5, which is far too young to expect a dancer to perform pointe without injury. During this same time Tallchief’s school teachers were impressed with her reading abilities and allowed her to skip two grade levels.
In 1933, the family moved to Los Angeles with the intent of the children getting into Hollywood Musicals. The California schools proved to be a personal challenge to Tallchief; even though she found the academics to be easy, she faced painful discrimination from her peers and took to spelling her name as one word. At the age of 12 Tallchief’s life began to shift focus more toward ballet when she met Bronislava Nijinska. Nijinska was a renowned choreographer who had recently opened up a ballet studio in LA. It was the teachings of Nijinska that made Tallchief want to pursue a career as a ballerina. Tallchief realized that being a ballerina was a full-time task and required all of her passion. She described working with Nijinska as, “We didn’t concentrate only for an hour and a half a day, we lived [ballet].” In 1942, Tallchief graduated from Beverly Hills High School and set out for New York City at the age of 17.
Once in New York Tallchief sought out Serge Denham and was hired as a temporary dancer because she had one thing that many of his current dancers did not, a passport. With a Canadian tour coming up Denham needed dancers that could cross the border, and many of his Russian emigres could not. After the tour Tallchief was offered a full time position with the troupe because one of the dancers had quit due to a pregnancy. Tallchief continued to work hard and study what her superiors were doing differently than her, that way she could grow as a ballerina. In 1943, the lead ballerina Nathalie Krassovska left the company Tallchief was at, and she was called up to dance Krassovska’s role.
Tallchief’s career would permanently change in the spring of 1944, when she met well known choreographer George Balanchine. He was hired by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to work on a new production called Song of Norway. Tallchief was assigned a solo position and was given the understudy to the lead role. The ballet was such a success that Balanchine was contracted for the rest of the season with the company. As the season went on Balanchine continued to give roles to Tallchief, but he also began to tutor her. Under Balanchine’s instruction Tallchief lost ten pounds, elongated her neck and legs, and learned how to hold her chest high, keep her back straight, and keep her feet arched. All of these lessons paid off when Tallchief was promoted to the rank of featured soloist within the company.
The relationship between Balanchine and Tallchief was mostly professional, as Tallchief was ignorant to the attraction Balanchine had for her. Over time the two became good friends, until one day Balanchine unexpectedly asked Tallchief to marry him. After some consideration Tallchief agreed and the couple was married on August 16, 1946.
Maria Tallchief’s career was at its height in 1948 when she became not only the first prima ballerina of Native American heritage of the New York City Ballet, but the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet. Tallchief was extremely popular at this time and was requested to perform about 8 times each week. She also featured in several ballets, including the 1954, reworked version of, the then obscure ballet, The Nutcracker. Tallchief’s performance was credited with being one of the reasons that the Christmas classic transformed into one of the industry’s most reliable box office draws.
With all of the success that Tallchief gained in her time as a ballerina she decided to retire in 1966. She expressed her concern to her husband that she wanted to retire before dancing beyond her prime, and Balanchine persuaded her to give her final performance in Peter van Dyk’s Cinderella as the title role.
Maria Tallchief leaped into the hearts of Americans with the beauty and grace she displayed while dancing. Historically, Tallchief’s career occurred in a time of many wars and resentment; but Tallchief transcended all of that for the sake of perusing what she loved. In her mind the only identity that she had that mattered to her was that she was a dancer. In her eyes she just happened to be a woman and Native American; but she was destined to be a ballerina. There is something to be said for that philosophy: identify yourself by what you love rather than society’s preconceived notions.