By Debra Cash.
When NPR reported the death of Balanchine ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died Thursday at the age of 88, a number of comments complained that the brief obituary had not mentioned she was a Native American. (The posting was slightly expanded soon after.) During the time of her greatest celebrity in the 1940 and 50s, though, no reader would have been unaware that Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief’s father had been full-blooded Osage.
Tallchief was one of five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma—her younger sister Marjorie, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin, and Yvonne Chouteau. All five were honored as “Oklahoma Treasures” with Governor’s Arts Awards in 1997. Beautiful, queenly, Tallchief staked a claim for native—yes, native—ballet talent that could equal Russian imports; and with her brief marriage to George Balanchine, her very biography demonstrated that the flower of Russian high culture had come to the United States and literally embraced it, inspired by a Native woman’s untameable fire.
In films of her dancing (the New York Times posted a selection here), Tallchief is unmistakable: her wide cheekbones almost cast shadows on her plaint neck, her legs seem endless but, when she balances, are rooted and firm. (In a remarkable clip of Les Sylphides—not a Balanchine ballet—with Royes Fernandez, at 4:16, the leg stretched behind her in arabesque is set in an unwavering position as she lifts her standing pointe into releve and glides backwards.)
Her signature role, as every commentator this week has noted, was Stravinsky’s Firebird, and it showcased her intrinsic musicality, the character’s watchfulness, and a beautiful, almost wild sternum that opened as she leaned back her head.
Ballet technique has changed a lot in the past half century, towards a looser, more athletic and streamlined, aesthetic derived in part from Balanchine’s later infatuation with the great Suzanne Farrell, but there’s unmistakable charm in the way Tallchief could look past her wrists and move her hands as if to send a motion sweetly on its way beyond her, and it’s something today’s young ballerinas would do well to emulate.
Tallchief had a long and to all reports satisfying post-performing career in Chicago, where she led both Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the Chicago City Ballet. I connected with her only once, on the telephone, when I was researching an article and wanted to say that Boston Ballet’s Lorna Feijoo and her sister Lorena were the only sisters who had ever paired up to alternate as the Odette and Odile in a production of Swan Lake. It was a point of fact you’d have to be a ballet geek to notice, but I took the opportunity to call Tallchief at home to see if, perhaps on a one-time benefit gala, she and Marjorie had ever shared a stage. No, she told me, ever graciously in that resonant voice of hers; her sister had made her career in Europe; they had not overlapped.
c 2013 Debra Cash