Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, died Thursday at age 88. In her decades-long career, she was instrumental in elevating her companies and her choreographers to stardom, turning once-unfavored productions like “The Nutcracker” into modern classics. For many, she was the quintessential American ballerina, providing a presence to answer to Europe’s and Russia’s centuries of tradition.
Tallchief, née Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, was born in 1925 to an Osage Indian father and Scottish-Irish mother, and grew up on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma. Interested in dance from a young age, her mother was a perpetual source of encouragement, enrolling her and her sister Marjorie in ballet lessons when the family moved to Los Angeles. As the New York Times wrote:
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, making both of them “self-conscious.”
“It wasn’t remotely authentic,” she wrote. “Traditionally, women didn’t dance in Indian tribal ceremonies. But I had toe shoes on under my moccasins, and we both wore fringed buckskin outfits, headbands with feathers, and bells on our legs. We’d enter from opposite wings, greet each other, and start moving to a tom-tom rhythm.”
The performance ended with Marjorie performing “no-handed back-flip somersaults.”
While Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief changed her name to Maria Tallchief for the stage, she resisted the suggestion to Russianize it to ‘Tallchieva’ (though she did play Anna Pavlova in the 1952 Esther Williams film Million Dollar Mermaid). Maria and Marjorie Tallchief were two of five Native prima ballerinas on the scene at the time, all born in Oklahoma a few years apart.
The video above includes amateur silent film footage of her star-making 1949 performance of “Firebird,” choreographed for her by George Balanchine, her first husband. It’s some of the only footage that exists of her peforming “Firebird,” and it’s grainy and shaky, but it gives one a sense of what it must have been like at the Osage reservation when Maria Tallchief first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Below, Tallchief discusses her identity as a Native American and as a ballerina: “You see, I think it is an innate thing in the American Indian to want to move, to want to dance. This is the way we are. We express our happiness, or our sorrow, in dance. This is the heritage.”