Maria Tallchief had a challenging dream: she wanted to be a ballerina. The challenge was her being a Native American Indian at a time when Native Americans were still rarely accepted.
Born January 24, 1925, Tallchief came from Osage Indian descent. Fortunately, the tribe benefited from oil rights and the family did not want for money.
Both Tallchief and her sister, Marjorie, possibly influenced by their grandmother who took them to tribal dance ceremonies, wanted to be dancers.. So when Tallchief was eight years old, her family moved to California seeking better opportunities for their daughters.
Both of the Tallchief children studied with Bronislava Nijinska who was also dance teacher to the legendary Cyd Charisse. Nijinska cast both Tallchief sisters in a ballet at the Hollywood Bowl.
But Maria was destined to take her dance career much further than the Hollywood Bowl. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York City. In the face of adversity – for even though she was in a big city, Tallchief still experienced skepticism with her Native American heritage – Tallchief allowed her talent to speak for itself. She quickly won over her counterparts and became a soloist ballerina.
George Balanchine, a much-revered ballet choreographer, joined the Ballet Russe and where the expressive Tallchief caught his attention. His mentoring of the young Tallchief enhanced her reputation. The two were married in 1946 and they moved to Paris.
Again, Tallchief was met with negativism due to her Native American heritage. However, when she debuted at the Paris Opera, her performance won over French audiences. She later danced with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia. She was the first American ballerina to perform at both.
Tallchief performed in numerous Balanchine operas including “The Firebird” in 1949 and the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”
But Balanchine was a wayward soul and prone to falling for the next new ballet sensation. Their marriage ended in 1952 when Balanchine began featuring Tanaquil Le Clercq in key roles in his operas. Not one to waste time, Balanchine married Le Clercq in December, 1952.
The ending of the marriage did nothing to faze Tallchief’s career. Or her desire to have children. She married Henry Paschen in 1956 and they had one child, Elise Paschen, who is currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Tallchief’s marriage to Paschen lasted until his death in 2003.
Tallchief joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1960 and toured in America and Russia. Although divorced, Tallchief continued working with Balanchine into the sixties in various ballet productions. She joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now known as the New York City Ballet. It was during her tenure with the New York City Ballet that Tallchief was recognized as a Prima Ballerina. She was the first American dancer to achieve this title as well as the first Native American Woman to achieve such success in ballet.
When Rudolf Nureyev made his American television debut, he chose Tallchief as his dance partner. Tallchief retired in 1966 and moved to Chicago.
Though she retired from the stage, Tallchief remained active in the performing arts, passing along her skills and knowledge to students at the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet. She later founded the Chicago City Ballet and was its artistic director from 1981 to 1987.
Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and honored at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998. In 1999, Tallchief was presented with the National Medal of Arts award by the National Endowment for the Arts.
A documentary “Maria Tallchief” was created in 2007 by Sandra and Yasu Osawa. It was heralded as the Best Documentary at the Fargo Film Festival in 2008.