Maria Tallchief dies at 88; American prima ballerina

Maria Tallchief dances in a New York City Ballet production of "Swan Lake" in 1953.
(Associated Press)

Maria Tallchief, one of the first great stars of American ballet, who grew up on an Oklahoma Indian reservation and became an artistic inspiration for renowned choreographer George Balanchine, has died. She was 88.

Tallchief, who was married to Balanchine for several years, died Thursday in Chicago, said her daughter, poet Elise Paschen. The cause of death was not disclosed.

A ballerina of electrifying intensity and great speed, Tallchief was one of five Oklahoma-born dancers of Native American heritage to rise to prominence about the same time. The five dancers included Tallchief’s sister Marjorie and helped bring global recognition to American dance when the ballet world was dominated by Russian stars.

Tallchief, who received her early ballet training in Los Angeles, would perform with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a leading company of the day, from 1942 to 1947. But her career was most closely linked with the New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine co-founded in 1948 and which became known for his groundbreaking, contemporary choreography and the sleek athleticism of its dancers.


In 1949, in a part Balanchine created for her, Tallchief earned international acclaim in the title role in Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” She starred in many other Balanchine ballets, including “Orpheus,” in 1948, and “Scotch Symphony,” in 1952. Two years later, she was the Sugar Plum Fairy in his original production of “The Nutcracker.”

Although Tallchief’s marriage to Balanchine was relatively brief, from 1946 to 1951, his influence on her career was profound.

“The way he explained things to dancers — asking us to imagine looking over a balustrade into a lake, for example — it made you utilize your whole body, and the effect became magical,” she told The Times in 2004. “The important thing was to know exactly what he wanted, his approach to things — the sense of poetry.”

Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born Jan. 24, 1925, on a reservation in Fairfax, Okla. She later used a variation of her middle name as her first and, for simplicity, combined her last name into a single word. Her father, Alexander Tall Chief, was an Osage Indian whose family, along with others, became wealthy from oil royalties. Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, was of Scottish-Irish descent.

At 3, Tallchief took her first ballet lesson in a hotel in Colorado Springs, where the family spent part of each summer, she wrote in her 2005 memoir, “Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina.”

“What I remember most is that the ballet teacher told me to stand straight and turn each of my feet out to the side, the first position,” she wrote. “I couldn’t believe it. But I did what I was told.” She also studied ballet and piano with teachers in Oklahoma.

When Tallchief was 8, the family moved to Los Angeles, partly so she and her younger sister, later a star of the Paris Opera Ballet, could take lessons from more advanced ballet teachers.

She studied with Ernest Belcher, then with Bronislava Nijinska, a former Ballet Russe choreographer who had moved to Los Angeles.


After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1942, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which by then was based in New York, touring mainly in the U.S.

Tallchief soon met the Russian-born Balanchine and for a time, became his muse. They married in 1946, when she was 21 and he was 42. It was the third of his four marriages. She would marry twice more.

She remained with the company until her retirement in 1965, but also had guest roles with many other companies, including American Ballet Theater. Tallchief headed the ballet school for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1970s and was later artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.

Upon receiving a Kennedy Center Honor from President Clinton in 1996, Tallchief said of the award: “I hope it will set a precedent for young American ballerinas. You don’t have to be from Russia.”


One impresario had tried to distance her from her Native American heritage by suggesting that she change her name from Tallchief to Tallchieva, she said at the ceremony.

Her response: “Never!”

Tallchief’s survivors include her daughter and sister.