Tallchief, the Prima Ballerina
I noticed the other day that Google was celebrating Maria Tallchief and I wanted to know more about her. While I had heard of her I didn’t know much more than that she was a ballerina and a Native American. My curiosity was piqued. Sharing here some of what I found!
Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tallchief was born January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Nation. Her mother, Ruth Porter, was always interested in dance but grew up in extreme poverty and was never able to follow her dream to dance. When her daughters Marjorie and Elizabeth showed an interest in dance they were immediately enrolled in classes. Elizabeth was only three. Ruth discovered that her daughter, Elizabeth, was a brilliant dancer and loved music; her specialty was ballet.
At age five, Tall Chief was enrolled at the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic School. Impressed by her reading ability, the teachers allowed her to skip the first two grade levels. Between piano, ballet, and school work, Tall Chief had little free time but loved the outdoors. In her autobiography, she reminisced about time spent "wandering around our big front yard" and "[rambling] around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass.”
She continued to study piano, appearing as a guest soloist with small symphony orchestras throughout high school. At this point in her life she believed that her career was in piano.
When she was 17 she went to New York, seeking a career in dance. It was a rude awakening for her. Because of her Native American heritage she was discriminated against; doors that should have been open were closed to her. This did not deter Tallchief! She was determined and she just kept knocking on those doors. She persisted and eventually became one of America’s prima ballerinas.
In 1942 when one of the lead ballerinas abruptly stepped down from the Ballet Russe, the premier Russian ballerina company in the U.S., Tallchief was selected as an understudy. Top critics gave er rave reviews and her career was launched. Many tried to persuade Tallchief to change her last name to prevent dance companies from discriminating against her. She steadfastly refused. This was who she was and she continued to perform as Maria Tallchief. In 1947 she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet.
She married choreographer George Balanchine in 1946. She was 21 and he was 42. Balanchie created her signature Firebird role. Tallchief went on to become prima ballerina of the New City Ballet. One of her best known roles was as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. She performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1960, the first American to do so. By 1951 she and Balanchine annulled their marriage but stayed together professionally. She married Elmourza Natirboff, a pilot, on October 4, 1952, but ended the marriage in 1954. She married Henry Buzz Paschen, a Chicago businessman, on June 3, 1956. Their union brought her only child, Elise Maria Paschen. Elise Maria became an award-winning poet and executive director of the Poetry Society of America. She and Paschen remained together until his death in 2004.
After she retired from dancing in 1965, not wanting to dance beyond her prime, she taught dance. In 1974 she and her sister opened the Chicago City Ballet, dance company and ballet school. Tallchief never forgot her Native American ancestry and spoke out often against discrimination and injustice. Tallchief, as a prima ballerina, not only broke barriers for Native Americans but also was one of the only Americans recognized in European ballet companies.
Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a National Medal of Arts. In 1996, she received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements. Her life has been the subject of many documentaries and biographies. The New York Times said of Tallchief, "one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century.”
Her Kennedy Center biography states that Tallchief was "both the inspiration and the living expression of the best [the United States] has given the world. Her individualism and her genius came together to create one of the most vital and beautiful chapters in the history of American dance."