Maria Tallchief, one of Oklahoma's five original Indian ballerinas and one of the first American Indians to become a prima ballerina with a major company, died Thursday at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She was 88.
Together with her sister, Marjorie, and fellow Oklahoma ballerinas, Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower and Moscelyne Larkin, Maria Tallchief achieved acclaim as one of the nation's most respected ballerinas of the mid-20th century.
“Maria Tallchief was, for generations of young dancers and audiences alike, the archetypical ballerina — commanding, elegant, the possessor of brilliant technique and electrifying stage presence — all of which seemed unforced, as if she were born with them,” said Mary Margaret Holt, regents professor and director of the University of Oklahoma School of Dance.
“The dance world will miss Maria Tallchief greatly, but all who saw and rejoiced in her as a dancer and woman of strength and intellectual prowess, will never forget the impression she made. Our lives were changed by her and we are most fortunate to have been touched by her brilliance.”
Born in Fairfax in 1925, Tallchief was the daughter of an Osage father and an Irish mother. As a young dancer, she studied with Bronislava Nijinksa and danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
For six years beginning in the late 1940s, Tallchief was married to noted choreographer George Balanchine. She became a featured dancer in many works he created at the acclaimed New York City Ballet, including roles in “Firebird” (1949), “Pas de Dix” (1955) and “Allegro Brillante” (1956).
“When I was given a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the first day I walked into class, Maria Tallchief was there at the barre and she hit my spirit like an explosion,” said Jo Rowan, chairman of the Ann Lacy School of American Dance & Arts Management at Oklahoma City University. “She was extremely dedicated and that led to a very powerful technique. That gave her the ability to express herself as a great artist. She was an inspiration to all dancers because as a ballerina, she was the epitome of what everyone should be to achieve success.”
In 1991, Oklahoma's five Indian ballerinas were honored with a mural that was unveiled in the rotunda of the state Capitol. Titled “Flight of Spirit,” the painting depicted the ballerinas along with five graceful geese that symbolized “the five spirits of these wonderful dancers,” artist Mike Larsen said.
“My mother was a ballet legend who was proud of her Osage heritage,” said Tallchief's daughter, Elise Paschen, in a statement. “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.”
After retiring from performing, Tallchief served as director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and from 1981 to 1987 was co-artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. In 1996, Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor. Three years later, she was named an Oklahoma Treasure as part of the Governor's Arts Awards. Also that year, Tallchief was honored with a National Medal of Arts by then-president Bill Clinton.
In 1955, while on tour in Chicago, Tallchief met Henry D. “Buzz” Paschen Jr. They married the following June and took a ballet tour of Europe. They were married until his death in 2004.
In addition to her daughter, Elise, Tallchief is survived by her son-in-law, Stuart Brainerd, and two grandchildren, Stephen and Alexandra.
A private family burial is planned with a public memorial service to be announced at a later date.
Contributing: The Chicago Tribune