At a time when most ballerinas arrived onstage bearing a Russian name, whether genuine or assumed, Maria Tallchief, widely considered the first major American prima ballerina, insisted on holding fast to her roots.
Born Elizabeth Maria Tallchief in Fairfax, Oklahoma in 1925, her mother was Scots-Irish, but her father, Alexander Tallchief, was a chief in the Osage Nation, and her great-grandfather, Peter Bigheart, was crucial in negotiating oil revenues for the Osage tribe.
Tallchief, a leading figure in 20th century dance, whose career spanned the years 1942-1965, and who at one time was both wife and muse to choreographer George Balanchine, died of pancreatic cancer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago on April 11. She was 88.
“What an extraordinary career Maria had,” said Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, who met her several times in Chicago. “She really paved the way for dancers who were not in the traditional mold of ballet. And reaching such a high rank, she was crucial in breaking the stigma. She also was the spark behind much of the amazing work created by Balanchine.
“When you watch Tallchief on video, you see that aside from the technical polish there is a burning passion she brought to her dancing. In her interpretation of Balanchine’s ‘Firebird,’ she was consumed both inside and out. She was not just a great dancer, but a real artist — a true interpreter who brought her personality to bear on the dancing. In regard to the Joffrey, she told me she hoped we would be able to bring the strongest dance education here, and also to do more Balanchine, which we plan to do.”
Although a ballet career was a challenge for a Native-American girl of her day, the Tallchief family moved to Beverly Hills, California, in 1933, and Maria, who also was a gifted pianist, began studying ballet there. At the age of 12 she became a pupil of Bronislava Nijinska, the dancer, choreographer and sister of the fabled Vaslav Nijinsky.
By 17, Tallchief was in New York auditioning. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performed with the company from 1942-47, quickly rising to featured soloist. Balanchine joined the Ballet Russe in 1944, and he and Tallchief married two years later. In 1947 she accompanied her husband to the Paris Opera where she appeared in his “Serenade,” “Apollon musagete” and “Baiser de la Fee.” Then, back in New York, Balanchine began creating what would become the New York City Ballet, and Tallchief became his leading ballerina.
Tallchief created the leading roles in such major Balanchine ballets as “Symphonie Concertante,” “Orpheus,” “Firebird” (which became her signature role), “Scotch Symphony,” “Allegro Brilliante” and many others. She also starred in his versions of “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker.” By 1951 Balanchine and Tallchief had annulled their marriage, but they stayed together as dancer and choreographer.
In 1954, while on tour with Ballet Russe, Tallchief reportedly made $2,000 per week and was the highest-paid prima ballerina of that time. She subsequently met Chicago builder Henry “Buzz” Paschen, who she married in 1956. He died in 2004. Their daughter, Elise Maria Paschen, is an acclaimed poet.
Tallchief, who retired from dancing in 1965, served as director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet from 1973 to 1979. In 1981, with her sister Marjorie, who also was a successful dancer, she founded the Chicago City Ballet and was its artistic director until 1987. From 1990-2013 she was honorary artistic advisor to Von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet.
“My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage,” said Elise Paschen. “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.”
In addition to her daughter, Tallchief is survived by her son-in-law Stuart Brainerd and two grandchildren, Stephen and Alexandra.
Ken von Heidecke, founder of the Chicago Festival Ballet, said: “Maria Tallchief Paschen was not only a prima ballerina assoluta. She also was a great teacher. She possessed an uncanny ability to articulate the art form of dance on multiple planes: to explain how the laws of physics govern all we do; to teach the geometry and line of the essence of classicism in dance, and to communicate the spiritual essence that creates the illusion of weightlessness and the effect of the supernatural. I, and so many others, owe our careers in dance to her meticulous training.”
There will be a private family burial. Details about a public memorial service will be announced at a future date.
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