Published on December 1, 2010 by John
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief (Osage family name: Ki He Kah Stah Tsa; January 24, 1925 – April 11, 2013) was considered America’s first major prima ballerina, and was the first Native American to hold the rank.
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Tallchief was honored by the people of Oklahoma with multiple statues and an honorific day. She was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a National Medal of Arts. In 1996, Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements. Her life has been the subject of multiple documentaries and biographies.
Her full name was Elizabeth Maria Tallchief; her family called her Betty Marie. She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma to a father who was a chief in the Osage Nation and a Scots-Irish mother.
Of her childhood she wrote, “I was a good student and fit in at Sacred Heart (Catholic school). But in many ways, I was a typical Indian girl — shy, docile, introverted. I loved being outdoors and spent most of my time wandering around my big front yard, where there was an old swing and a garden. I’d also ramble around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass. Finding one made me shiver with excitement. Mostly, I longed to be in the pasture, running around where the horses were…”
She enjoyed music, dancing and ballet. Her desire to pursue a career in the arts constituted a considerably challenging dream for a Native American child in those days. The family moved to Beverly Hills, California in 1933, where she studied ballet with Bronislava Nijinska for five years. Madame Nijinska’s philosophy of discipline made sense to Tallchief. “When you sleep, sleep like a ballerina. Even on the street waiting for the bus, stand like ballerina” . Betty Marie continued to work hard and mastered technical skills well beyond her years. She premiered at the Hollywood Bowl.
Tallchief left Los Angeles at the age of 17 and auditioned in New York City. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and quickly rose to the status of featured soloist. At the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, she adopted the name Maria Tallchief.
Georgian-born choreographer George Balanchine wrote several of his most famous works for her. The two were married on August 16, 1946; the marriage ended in 1952. They had no children. She was the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947 to 1960, where Balanchine was the principal choreographer. Her performance of Balanchine’s The Firebird in 1949 and their earlier collaboration at the Paris Opera elevated Maria Tallchief onto the world stage. She also originated the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker, in 1954.
Tallchief continued to dance with the New York City Ballet and with other groups until her retirement in 1965. With her sister Marjorie, she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as its artistic director until 1987. From 1990 to present she has been artistic advisor to Von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet.
After her marriage to Balanchine ended, she later married Henry “Buzz” Paschen, a Chicago builder, on June 3, 1956. The latter marriage lasted until his death in 2003. They had one daughter, Elise Paschen (born 1959), an award-winning poet who served as the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America from 1988 to 2001, and currently teaches in the writing program at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Maria Tallchief’s younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, also had a successful career as a ballet dancer and was for several years “première danseuse étoile” of the Paris Opera Ballet. She worked with her sister Maria many times over the years.
The Governor of Oklahoma honored her for her international achievements and her proud Native American identity.
Maria Tallchief was named Wa-Xthe-Thomba (“Woman of Two Worlds”).
She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 along with Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Edward Albee, and Benny Carter
In 1999 she was awarded the American National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C.
On November 7, 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented a special tribute to Maria Tallchief titled “A Tribute to Ballet Great Maria Tallchief”. During which Tallchief officially named Kenneth von Heidecke as her protégé.
Maria Tallchief is honored in Tulsa, Oklahoma, along with four other Native-American ballerinas (Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Marjorie Tallchief), with a larger than life-size bronze statue entitled “The Five Moons” in the garden of the Tulsa Historical Society, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A one hour documentary titled Maria Tallchief was completed in November 2007 by Sandy and Yasu Osawa of Upstream Productions in Seattle, Washington. The documentary will air on PBS stations at various times from 2007-2010. The film features 180 archival photos including some from Tallchief’s personal collection covering the time period of her marriage to George Balanchine and her early years growing up in Fairfax, Oklahoma. In addition, clips from her performances include Swan Lake, Pas de Dix, Le Baiser de la Fée, The Nutcracker, The Firebird and The Black Swan.
Tallchief made a cameo appearance as Pavlova in the film Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams. She also appears in the feature documentary Ballets Russes.