The audience goes wild. The city center is alive with thunderous claps and boisterous cheers; it sounds like the stadium after a football game. But it is no quarterback that emerges into the spotlight. No, it’s a Firebird, a creature of flame and light, a piece of poetry in motion. It is Maria Tallchief.
Last weekend I was surfing the internet, as one does when a stunning Google Doodle caught my eye. It turned out the masterpiece was the work of three Indigenous artists, Lydia Cheshewalla, Chris Pappan, and Yatika Fields. They had collaborated to honor Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina.
I’m a simple person: I see ballet, and I click. And Tallchief’s story is certainly worth learning.
Born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, she was raised on the Osage Indian Reservation. When she was three, she attended her first ballet class and started taking weekly lessons with her sister Marjorie. Before long, the instructor put her on pointe, and her mother thought the instructor was making stars out of her daughters (spoiler alert—she was not). Betty Marie also had perfect pitch, so her mother believed she was destined to be a pianist.
In 1933, her mother, Ruth Porter, grew tired of Oklahoma, and the family moved to Los Angeles. On the drive down, they stopped for gas, where an anonymous man decided their fate; Ruth asked the store attendant if he knew any good schools in the area, and he replied that there was one right in town: Ernest Belcher’s. So that’s where the family settled—a small town where they had just stopped for gas.
Under Belcher’s scrutiny, it became clear that their past instructor’s methods were, ahem, unhelpful. With her faulty techniques, it was a miracle that they hadn’t been injured.
When Betty Marie was 12, the girls started with a new teacher; the legendary Bronislava Nijinska. Tallchief credits Nijinska with putting her on the path to her destiny; she initially thought she was going to be a concert pianist, but Madame Nijinska’s devotion to ballet showed her what she wanted to do with her life.
When Betty Marie turned 17, she did the thing—she moved to New York to pursue her ballet dreams. She joined the Ballet Russe as a corps member and danced with the touring troupe. There, her superiors suggested that she Russianize her last name, and change it to Tallchieva. Tallchief refused, remaining proud of her Indigenous heritage. She did, however, agree to change her first name to Maria.
In 1944, the company took on a project with George Balanchine for a new musical. Balanchine caught Maria’s eye; a pianist herself, Tallchief was intrigued by his unique musicality. As time went on, they became friends, and Balanchine began choreographing for the Ballet Ruse, casting Maria in several important roles. didn’t think much of it, focusing instead on her developing techniques.
In 1945, Balanchine left the Ballet Russe to start a new company: the New York City Ballet. But before he left, he asked Maria Tallchief to marry him.
Tallchief was just as shook; she had mistaken his attention for mere professionality. Nevertheless, she eventually agreed, and they got married on August 16, 1946.
Here’s the thing about their relationship; it was very much still a working arrangement, built on their passions. In Tallchief’s words: “I was his wife, but I was also his ballerina. He was my husband, but he was also my choreographer. He was a poet and I was his muse.”
Shortly after their marriage, Tallchief accompanied Balanchine on an assignment to Paris, where she danced for the Paris Opera Ballet. The French press complimented her performance, but her Indigenous background fascinated them even more.
After returning to the US, Tallchief quickly rose in the new company, becoming the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet. And the first Native American prima ballerina. Balanchine created many roles for Maria, including Odette in his version of the Swan Lake, and many others. And of course: The Firebird.
After months of preparation, and many stress-induced practice sessions, she debuted the role in 1949, to raving reviews. Emphasis on raving:
“Then the curtain rose again, and as long as I live I’ll never forget the roar. A firestorm of applause erupted in the city center… every time the curtain went down they started calling out my name until it went up again: ‘Tallchief !Tallchief! Tallchief! Tallchief!'”
Tallchief and Balanchine were a combination of artistic perfection; her fiery athleticism and musicality was the perfect vessel for his groundbreaking choreography. Power couple, anyone?
Not really—they annulled their marriage in 1952 after falling for other people. The pair, however, continued their working relationship on amicable terms.
Tallchief remained with the New York City Ballet until 1960, but she took time off to dance with other companies. At one point, she was the highest-paid ballerina in the world, earning 2000 dollars a week. She retired from the stage in 1966 and moved to Chicago with her new husband, Buzz Paschen. There, she founded the Chicago City Ballet.
Maria Tallchief is certainly an icon; her passionate, musicality and technique changed the face of American ballet, and through it all she remained proud of her Native American heritage. A true queen.
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