After over 70 years of affecting the world of dance, the world bids farewell to one of the most recognized ballerinas of the last century. Chicago artistic icon and former prima ballerina Maria Tallchief died Thursday at Chicago’s NorthwesternMemorialHospital. She was 88 years old. Her daughter Elise Paschen, an award-winning poet confirmed the passing in an official statement. “Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did,” said Paschen.
“She was a remarkable woman and a consummate professional,” said William Mason of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “She realized who and what she was, but she didn’t flaunt it. She was unpretentious.”
Born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief in a small hospital in Fairfax, Oklahoma on January 24, 1925, she began her life on an Oklahoman Indian reservation. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a full-blooded Osage Indian, son of Osage tribe leader Chief Big Heart. Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, was of Scottish-Irish descent and had originally been hired as housekeeper and cook for her future mother-in-law Eliza. It was Eliza who led her granddaughter, then known as Betty Marie, to a fascination with culture and the arts by taking her elaborate ceremonial presentations on the Osage reservation. The ceremonial dancing made a great impact on the young Betty Marie with its intensity and the deep cultural meaning in the movements. Later in her life she’d be known as one of the Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas, five ballerinas born at roughly the same time who rose from the reservations to acclaim in the world of ballet. The others were her sister Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, and Moscelyne Larkin.
At age 8, after three years of ballet classes in Oklahoma, Betty Marie followed her family’s move to Los Angeles. In the City of Angels she took classes at the studio of Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Ms. Tall Chief made her professional debut at age 15 dancing “Chopin Concerto” at the Hollywood Bowl alongside a young Cyd Charisse. Throughout her youth she also took classes from traveling master teachers including Tatiana Riabouchinska, who introduced her to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo while on a trip to New York City. Elizabeth Marie joined this company, which had taken up residence in New York after the start of WWII, after she graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1942.
In addition to performing in Nijinska’s ballets, Ms. Tall Chief also performed in Anges de Mille’s “Rodeo,” a renowned early American ballet. It was at the suggestion of de Mille, that Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief changed her stage name to the simpler Marie Tallchief.
In 1944 Marie was introduced to George Balanchine who was choreographing a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo piece for a Broadway production. Balanchine joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo fully as a choreographer and cast Ms. Tallchief in a number of his ballets. “I never really understood, until Balanchine, what ballet was all about,” Maria would say later of her mentor and friend. Two years later, in 1946, their professional relationship became personal as Maria married Balanchine. Later that year Balanchine created his own company with patron Lincoln Kirstein known as the Ballet Society. This venture was to be a forerunner to the New York City Ballet.
After her contract with the Ballet Russe expired in 1947, Marie followed Balanchine to Paris for a year before coming back with him to mark the birth of the newly formed New York City Ballet, which gave its first performance on October 11, 1948. It was here that Maria Tallchief would become an international ballet sensation. In Balanchine’s works she originated the title role in his version of “Firebird” as well as creating the roles of “Swan Queen” and “Sugar Plum Fairy” in his versions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. She and Balanchine would divorce in 1950, but she stayed with the company another 15 years. She also danced with other companies at the same time including the American Ballet Theater and a return to the Ballet Russe. Her contract with the latter paid her $2000 a week, which at that point was the highest salary paid to a dancer.
In 1974 Ms. Tallchief moved to Chicago where she established the Ballet School of the Lyric Opera. She later began serving as artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet in 1981, but left in 1987, preferring teaching to directing.
Among her many honors Maria was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She also received a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1996. “She was truly legendary… an extraordinary expert on multiple planes of the art,” remembers Kenneth von Heidecke of Von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet.
Maria Tallchief is survived by her sister Marjorie, her daughter Elise, and two grandchildren.