Maria Tallchief – America’s First Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief pictured on the February 1954 front cover of Dance Magazine.
Attribution: Unknown photographer [

Special to Native News Online from The Cultural Traveler

Published December 2, 2019

Maria Tallchief was America’s first prima ballerina and her talent and contributions further raised the profile of ballet in America. She was born Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tall Chief on January 25, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma, the daughter of a Scots-Irish mother and a Native American father who served as chief in the Osage Nation.

In the documentary “Dancing for Mr. B,” Maria recalls her first dance lesson at the tender age of 3 in the basement of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO. In retrospect, she mused that she was much too young for the physical demands of ballet, and was amazed that her small toes didn’t break under the strain.

From her first dance lessons in 1928, Maria’s parents encouraged her natural talent. In 1933, when she was 8, they moved Maria and her sister Marjorie (who also went on to become an accomplished ballerina) to Beverly Hills, CA, providing them the opportunity to train professionally in ballet.

Maria moved to New York City at the age of 17 to pursue her passion and landed her first position with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. There she first met the famous choreographer, George Balanchine, whom she married in 1946. Despite the end of their marriage in 1952, their professional relationship continued to flourish, with George composing numerous ballets for Maria.

In 1942, after attempts to both Anglicize and Russify her name, “Betty Marie” chose to honor her family heritage and ancestry by keeping her last name intact and officially changed her professional name to Maria Tallchief.

Success shone on Maria, and in 1947 she joined the New York City Ballet as the prima ballerina, a coveted title she held until 1960. Some of her more famous performances were in Symphonie Concertante (1947), Orpheus (1948), The Firebird (1949), Swan Lake (1951), Caracole (1952), Scotch Symphony (1952), and The Nutcracker (1954). Her role in the Firebird secured her fame as one of the world’s best dancers. And her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, helped transform this ballet into an American holiday classic.

In 1960, she became the first American to perform at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. And until her retirement in 1965, Maria’s performances were also televised in the United States.

Maria’s passion for ballet and dance continued well past retirement. She served as the artistic director for the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet during the 1970’s. Together with her sister Marjorie, they formed the Chicago City Ballet in 1981, where she served as artistic director until 1987.

Throughout her life and up until her death in 2013 at 88, Maria advocated for acceptance and opportunities for Native Americans, and was active in Americans for Indian Opportunity and the Indian Council Fire Achievement Awards.

Maria was recognized numerous times over her illustrious career:

1951 – Mademoiselle magazine’s Woman of the Year
1953 – Washington Press Woman of the Year
June 29, 1953 – The Oklahoma State Legislature proclaimed the day as Maria Tallchief Day, and the Osage Nation bestowed upon her the name Wa-Xthe-Thonba, “Woman of Two Worlds,” celebrating her ability to thrive within both the Native American and Eurocentric cultures.
1963 – Named Indian of the Year.
1965 – Won the Capezio Dance Award.
1991 – The Oklahoma State Legislature commissioned Mike Larsen, to paint Flight of Spiritcelebrating Maria, her sister Marjorie, and three other Native American ballerinas. Larsen’s creative vision was to merge the tragic history of Native Americans with the hope and renewal of modern accomplishments.
1996 – Received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.
1996– Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
1999 – Awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts.
2006 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented a special tribute to Maria Tallchief titled “A Tribute to Ballet Great Maria Tallchief.”
2007 – Maria, her sister Marjorie and three other Native American ballerinas were honored in a bronze sculpture called “The Five Moons” on permanent display outside the Tulsa Historical Society in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Accomplished, transformative, inspirational and pioneering, Maria Tallchief not only helped raise the profile and understanding of ballet in America, she also helped raise the profile of and understanding of the Osage Nation and all Native Americans through her activism, and dance.

 

 

 

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