Maria Tallchief (dancer and teacher; born January 24, 1925, Fairfax, Oklahoma-April 11, 2013) "A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own. Each individual brings something different to the same role," Maria Tallchief once said. "As an American, I believe in great individualism. That's the way I was brought up." Tallchief has been both muse and instrument, both the inspiration and the living expression of the best our country 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.
She was born in an Indian reservation, her father member of the Osage tribe, her mother of Irish and Scottish descent. When the family relocated to Los Angeles, young Maria began music lessons and soon found that she had perfect pitch. But it was the dance that would capture the young girl's heart. Her teacher was Bronislava Nijinska. After five full years of study with that dance pioneer, Maria Tallchief joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she soon achieved soloist status and danced in a variety of ballets from Scheherezade and Gaite Parisienne to, prophetically, George Balanchine's Serenade. Balanchine himself saw Tallchief for the first time in the operetta Song of Norway, where she danced in the corps and understudied Alexandra Danilova. Balanchine fell in love with the dancer, who became his wife in 1946 and the inspiration for, among others, Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante, Sylvia: pas de deux, Orpheus, Night Shadow, The Four Temperaments, and Scotch Symphony. Husband and wife first collaborated at the Paris Opera, in a sort of extended working honeymoon in 1947. Balanchine then brought Tallchief home to his Ballet Society, the company that would become New York City Ballet. Her immense popularity with the American public would grow in part from the huge demand the then small company put on this gifted principal: Tallchief was called upon to dance as many as eight performances a week, and her legend grew. Her dedication was complete, her abandon astounding.
Lincoln Kirstein noted his impressions of the by then Mrs. Balanchine in Firebird in his diary in 1949, New York City Ballet's first season. "Maria Tallchief made an electrifying appearance, emerging as the nearest approximation to a prima ballerina that we had yet enjoyed." He was not alone in his praise. Perhaps the critic Walter Terry described it best when he encountered Tallchief in the 1954 world premiere of Balanchine's now historic version of The Nutcracker at City Center. "Maria Tallchief, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, is herself a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with her radiance of being. Does she have any equals anywhere, inside or outside of fairyland? While watching her in The Nutcracker, one is tempted to doubt it."
In the 1955 Pas de Six, Balanchine made use of Tallchief's innate subtlety and delicacy to such effect that it would take other great ballerinas in the same role for the world to realize just how very difficult technically this ballet is: She made it look easy, natural, musical and radiant. She was, in short, the living essence of a Balanchine ballet. Yet when Balanchine's attentions shifted to another dancer--and another wife--Tallchief found other outlets for her own genius. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a guest artist in 1955 and 1956, famously receiving the highest salary ever paid any dancer. She remarried in 1956, took her only leave from ballet in order to become a mother in 1958, returned briefly to the New York City Ballet to create Balanchine's Gounod Symphony, then joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1960.
Even as Firebird became her signature role around the world, Tallchief's personal triumphs ranged beyond Balanchine and even into Antony Tudor's Jardin aux lilas and Birgit Cullberg's Miss Julie, in which she was partnered by Erik Bruhn at the American Ballet Theatre. She was Rudolf Nureyev's partner of choice in the young Russian defector's American debut in 1962, on television.
Tallchief surprised the world by announcing her retirement in 1965. She had no intention of dancing past her considerable prime. She now wanted to pass her love and respect for her art to younger dancers. She became the artistic director and beloved teacher of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975; from 1981 to 1987, Tallchief became the founder and artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. "New ideas are essential," Tallchief said at the time, "but we must retain respect for the art of ballet--and that means the artist too--or else it is no longer an art form."