“Onstage, she looks as regal and exotic as a Russian princess; offstage, she is as American as wampum and apple pie,” cheered TIME magazine about prima ballerina Maria Tallchief in 1951. One of the most celebrated Native American women of the 20th century, Tallchief was the first American dancer in the history of ballet to earn international fame.
She was born Elizabeth Marie Tallchief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, a small town located on the Osage Indian reservation. Her father, Alexander Tallchief, was a member of the Osage tribe and her mother, Ruth Porter, was a woman of Scots-Irish heritage. Betty Marie (as her family called her), along with her younger sister, Marjorie, were educated in the arts and high culture. By age four, Betty Marie was playing the piano and dancing in toe shoes.
Determined to have her daughters receive the very best instruction, Ruth moved the family to Beverly Hills, California. As a teenager, Tallchief enrolled in the dancing school of Bronislava Nijinska, a famous Russian ballerina and choreographer, where she decided to devote herself to a career in ballet.
After graduating high school, Tallchief moved to New York City, where she landed her first job in the famed touring troupe the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her employers suggested she take the stage name “Tolchieva,” to give the impression that she was Russian, however, she refused, but agreed to change her first name to the elegant-sounding “Maria.”
In 1943, she was given her first solo in the Chopin Concerto, a ballet choreographed by her old teacher Nijinska. Tallchief became an instant success and the Ballet Russe promoted her as the “beautiful dancing Osage.”
In 1944, she became the muse of the ballet master George Balanchine, who would dictate the course of Tallchief’s career. Balanchine was enchanted by her as a performer and the two were even married in August 1946.
The following year, Tallchief was invited to join the prestigious Paris Opera for a season as a guest artist. Her appearance in the company marked the first time in 108 years that an American ballerina performed on that stage.
After returning from Paris, Tallchief joined the new innovative Balanchine company, the Ballet Society (later renamed the New York City Ballet). She danced to great praise in The Four Temperaments (1946), Symphonie Concertante (1947), and Orpheus (1948). But it was her performance in the title role in the classic Russian ballet Firebird (1949), that made her an international star. One critic raved of the performance, “she preened, she shimmered, she glorified in speed and airy freedom.”
While her career continued to rise, the pressure to top each celebrated performance weighed heavily on Tallchief. Balanchine’s constant demands only increased the tension between their work and home life. In 1950, she separated from her husband, but the two continued to have a working relationship. During this period, she danced many of her greatest parts choreographed by Balanchine: Swan Lake (1951), Serenade (1952), Scotch Symphony (1952), and The Nutcracker (1954).
Throughout her career, Tallchief remained closely identified with her Osage heritage. In 1953, her success was celebrated by the Osage Tribe Nation, who gave her the title “Princess Wa-Txthe-thonba” meaning “the Woman of Two Standards.” The Oklahoma State Senate also honored her by declaring June 29, 1953, Maria Tallchief Day.
Tallchief’s career hit another milestone when she appeared on the cover of the October 11, 1954 issue of Newsweek magazine. The cover story focused on her salary of $2,000 a week, which the Ballet Russe had used to lure her away from the New York City Ballet. Newsweek proclaimed Tallchief the highest paid ballerina in the world.
However, her time with the Ballet Russe was short. Disappointed with the company creatively, she left after one season and returned to New York City Ballet where she remained for ten years. In 1956, she married Henry “Buzz” Paschen, Jr., a construction company executive, and had their daughter Elisa. As Balanchine turned his attention to younger protégés, she lost her prominence in the company. This coupled with her hectic commute from Chicago to New York led Tallchief to quit the company in 1965. Nine years later, Tallchief was lured out of retirement by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she developed a touring group of dancers. Later, she and her sister opened the Chicago City Ballet in 1980.
Among her honors, Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996 and received a Kennedy Center Honor that same year. She died in 2013.
As a prima ballerina, Tallchief not only broke barriers for Native Americans, she also became one of the only Americans recognized in international ballet companies.
- Search Chronicling America to find more newspaper coverage of Maria Tallchief and more!
- Check out the “Native American History and Culture: Finding Images” LibGuide created by the Prints & Photographs Division to help find images of Maria Tallchief and other Native Americans in the Library’s collections.
- Maria Tallchief and Larry Kaplan, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997).
- Liz Sonneborn, A to Z Native American Women (New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc., 1998).