You were born in Fairfax, Oklahoma in January 1925, to a father who was a Native American chief of the Osage Nation and a mother who was Scotch- Irish. What are the chances that you will study ballet with Bronislava Nijinska for five years in Los Angeles, audition in New York at the age of 17 and join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, become an inspiration for George Balanchine’s choreography and marry him in 1946, become first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947-1960?
“The Osage Nation is a Native American Siouan-speaking tribe in the United States that originated in the Ohio River valley in present-day Kentucky. After years of war with invading Iroquois, the Osage migrated west of the Missippi River to their historic lands in present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma by the mid-17th century.
The 19-century painter George Caitlin described the Osage as
the tallest race of men in North America, either red or white skins; there being few indeed of the men at their full growth, who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet.
The missionary Isaac McCoy described the Osage as an “uncommonly fierce, courageous, warlike nation” and Washington Irving said they were the “finest looking Indians I have ever seen in the West.”
Nijinska and Balanchine both danced for Diaghilev and had been reared in a world of the senses very different from the Kansas plains. Tallchief said of her childhood in Oklahoma ,’ I was a typical Indian girl- shy, docile, introverted. I loved being outdoors […] I’d also ramble around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass. Finding one made me shiver with excitement.’
The first performance of Balanchine’s ‘Firebird’ in 1949, created especially for Maria, and their earlier collaboration at the Paris Opera, gave Tallchief world recognition. She had a younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, born in 1927, who also became a ballerina. Majorie and she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1961,and Maria served as its artistic director until 1987.
I saw both of them dance. Maria was strong and commanding onstage. I remember Majorie in a sleep-walking sequence in which she appeared quite thin and delicate.
I am sorry that some of the film from the 1950’s is of poor quality. We are fortunate to have it at all, because it was not customary to film dance. Some of the film is around 60 years old.
Maria in film of Pavlova 1952:
Maria Tallchief in Act II,Swan Lake in 1954:
She was quite a beauty.
La Sylphide in black and white film:
Scotch Symphony 1959:
‘Flower Festival in Gezano’, Maria Tallchief and Rudolph Nureyev in his American debut 1962
Bruhn’s choreography after Bournonville , with intricate foot work