Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to become prima ballerina of a major company, died in Chicago Thursday. She was 88 years old.
Elise Paschen, Tallchief’s daughter and an award-winning poet, confirmed the death.
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, to Alexander Tall Chief, a chief of the Osage Nation, and his Scots-Irish wife Ruth Porter, who was the Tall Chief family’s cook and housekeeper. In 1933, when Tallchief was 8 years old, the family moved to Beverly Hills in 1933. In California, Tallchief was instructed in ballet by Ernest Belcher until she was 12 years old. Belcher had been recommended to the family by a druggist, whom Mrs. Tall Chief had casually asked if he knew of a good dancing teacher.
After Belcher, Tallchief studied with Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for the Ballets Russes, until she was 17. In 1942, Tallchief moved from California to New York City, which had become the base for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Nijinska cast Tallchief in some of her ballots, but the teenager also danced in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.” De Mille suggested Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief change her professional name to Maria Tallchief and she agreed.
In 1944, Tallchief was cast in several George Balanchine ballets, such as “Danses Concertantes” and “Ballet Imperial.” Balanchine began to notice Tallchief, and she him. Two years later, on August 16, 1946, the two were married.
Tallchief became a prominent soloist while at the Ballet Russe, but her husband wanted to have his own company. The same year Balanchine married Tallchief, he and Lincoln Kirstein, an arts patron, established Ballet Society, a forerunner to the New York City Ballet. Tallchief was still under her Ballet Russe contract at the time, and remained with the company until it expired. After that, she went to Paris.
On October 11, 1948, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet put on its first performance under its new name. Balanchine created several roles for his wife, who was the first prima ballerina of the company and remained in the position until 1960, including the Swan Queen in his production of “Swan Lake” and the Sugar Plum Fairy in his production of “The Nutcracker.”
Maria Tallchief and George Balanchine divorced in 1950, but she continued to dance with the New York City Ballet and other companies until her retirement in 1965. From 1973 to 197, she directed the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet. After that, with her sister Marjorie Tallchief, she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and remained artistic director for six years. She was the artistic advisor of Kenneth von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet from 1990 until 2013. Von Heidecke confirmed that Tallchief’s death was caused by complications from a broken hip sustained in December.
Tallchief was married two more times: To Elmourza “Elmo” Natirboff, an aviator, from 1952 until 1954, and to Henry “Buzz” Paschen from 1956 until his death in 2003.
Maria Tallchief is survived by her daughter, Elise Paschen, her sister Marjorie, and two grandchildren.