Maria Tallchief, prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, in Tschaikowsky's… (AP/AP )
Maria Tallchief, a dancer of electrifying passion and technical ability who forged a pathbreaking career that took her from an Oklahoma Indian reservation to world acclaim and who was a crucial artistic inspiration for choreographer George Balanchine, her first husband, died April 11 at a hospital in Chicago. She was 88.
The cause was complications from a broken hip sustained in December, said Kenneth von Heidecke, a choreographer and founder of the Chicago Festival Ballet.
Ms. Tallchief — born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief — was of American Indian and Irish-Scottish descent. In a career that flourished from the 1940s to the 1960s at what became the New York City Ballet, she helped break down ethnic barriers in the world of dance and was one of the first American ballet stars in a field long dominated by Russian and European dancers.
After retiring in 1965, she settled in Chicago and taught at the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and founded the Chicago City Ballet.
When she received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, she recalled the pressure she faced as an American dancer. One impresario insisted that she Russianize her name to Tallchieva. “Never!” she said, although she was open to the concession of changing her surname to one word and to use Maria, a variation on her middle name.
From the start, her dancing was characterized by precise footwork and an athleticism that dazzled without being excessive. Her regality and grace won critical admirers, as well as the attention of Balanchine, who was consistently impressed by her musicality, which had been honed through childhood piano lessons.
Balanchine revolutionized ballet by creating sleek, streamlined works that demanded athleticism, speed and attack like no choreography before them. “I always thought Balanchine was more of a musician even than a choreographer, and perhaps that’s why he and I connected,” she told The Washington Post.
Balanchine had a history of blurring the lines between the personal and the professional. He was known to fixate on one woman, making her his artistic obsession and romantic partner, only to eventually abandon her when a new talent came along. Ms. Tallchief became part of this pattern after the two married in 1946, when she was 21 and the Russian-born Balanchine was 42. It was Balanchine’s third marriage.
The next year, Ms. Tallchief accompanied her husband to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he was invited to serve as a guest choreographer and where she would become the first American to dance with that troupe.
She wasn’t greeted very warmly by company members, but she easily won over French audiences. No matter where she performed, Ms. Tallchief wanted to be judged on the merits of her dancing alone. “Above all, I wanted to be appreciated as a prima ballerina who happened to be a Native American, never as someone who was an American Indian ballerina,” she once wrote.
Ms. Tallchief originated roles as the lead dancer in Balanchine’s ballet “The Firebird” in 1949 and in “Swan Lake” in 1951, along with such works as “Symphony in C,” “Orpheus” and “Scotch Symphony.” Her virtuosic execution of these dances — executed with fiery, sometimes erotic fervor, while maintaining a lightness of foot — helped establish Balanchine as the era’s most prominent and influential choreographer.
One of her best-known roles was that of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s 1954 production of “The Nutcracker,” then considered an obscure ballet. Balanchine revamped it in a number of ways, most notably by adding numerous children to the cast, including in the central roles of Marie and the Nutcracker Prince. Ms. Tallchief’s commanding performance helped transform the show into a American holiday season staple and the ballet world’s most perennially reliable box-office draw.
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born Jan. 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Okla. An Osage tribal member, she grew up on the Osage reservation, where her family and others prospered from oil royalties that the tribe received from the U.S. government. Their wealth was great enough that Ms. Tallchief’s father never had a job in his life.
Ms. Tallchief’s mother, the former Ruth Porter, had dreamed of being a performer but, as a young woman, could not afford dance or music lessons. Determined to make her daughters stars, she enrolled her 3-year-old, whom the family called Betty Marie, in ballet classes. Her other daughter, Marjorie, also became a professional ballerina.
The children were made to perform at area rodeos and other events. With the intent of getting them into Hollywood musicals, Ruth Tall Chief moved the family to Los Angeles in 1933. Maria Tallchief later said her father happily agreed to the plan because he was an avid golfer and thought the climate would allow him to play more often.