Maria Tallchief (1925 – 2013)
Maria Tallchief as the lead in “The Firebird” (Photo: New York City Ballet Archives)
Praised for her technical skill and artistry, Maria Tallchief was America’s first major prima ballerina, the first Native American woman to hold the rank. In a field dominated by Russians and Europeans, it was common for American dancers to change their names to something more Russian-sounding, but Tallchief was fiercely proud of her heritage as part of the Native American Osage Nation and rejected this practice. Tallchief studied ballet and piano in Colorado Springs before moving to Los Angeles at age 8. At the recommendation of a complete stranger in at a drug store, she sought out dance instruction from Ernest Belcher, a move which changed the course of her life.
Known for her speed, energy, and fire, her critically acclaimed performance as the lead in a 1949 production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird catapulted her to the top of the ballet world. Tallchief was extremely influential in American ballet—her 1954 performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy transformed The Nutcracker from an obscure ballet to a Christmas classic that now generates about 40% of annual ticket revenue for American Ballet companies.
Upon her death in 2013, Jacques d’Amboise, a choreographer and New York City Ballet star, compared Tallchief to two of the century’s greatest ballerinas: Galina Ulanova of the Soviet Union and Margot Fonteyn of Britain. “When you thought of Russian ballet, it was Ulanova. With English ballet, it was Fonteyn. For American ballet, it was Tallchief. She was grand in the grandest way.”