One of America’s finest ballerinas and the muse and wife of legendary choreographer George Balanchine has died, aged 88.
Maria Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago, where she had founded the short-lived Chicago City Ballet, the family announced. She had previously been the dazzling prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet from 1948 to 1965, working with Balanchine, who was also briefly her husband.
“My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage,” said daughter Elise Paschen in a statement, referring to Tallchief’s Native American background.
“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.”
Balanchine created the lead role of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” for her, among many others, while her performances in the choreographer’s take on “Swan Lake” and “Orpheus” helped cement his stature.
Her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s 1954 “Nutcracker,” wrote The Washington Post, helped “transform” a previously obscure ballet into “an American holiday staple and the ballet world’s most perennially reliable box-office draw.”
Born in 1925 to a father from the Osage tribe and a mother of Irish-Scottish descent, Tallchief was one of the first Native American ballerinas to achieve such prominence with major companies.
Her pride in her heritage led her to refuse pressure common at the time to change her name to a more marketable, Russian-sounding version — for example turning Tallchief into Tallchieva.
She grew up initially on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, where her family’s life had been revolutionized by the wealth that came with the discovery of oil on tribal land.
Highly musical, she took piano and ballet lessons, and at eight, when her family moved to Los Angeles, her dancing turned serious.
In 1942, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a leading touring company, and it was there that she grew close Balanchine, who was the choreographer. They married in 1946 and divorced in 1950.
She was the prima ballerina at New York City Ballet, where Balanchine was also choreographer. Her appearance in the “The Firebird” in 1949 assured her stardom.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]