In 1942, at the age of 17, Maria Tallchief moved to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer. With luck, grit and determination she joined the famed Ballet Russe Monte Carlo as an apprentice and moved quickly through the ranks, dancing first in the corps de ballet and later performing leading roles. In George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Tallchief achieved her goal of becoming America’s prima ballerina, the first Native American artist to achieve the rank.
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Nation. Her mother, Ruth Porter, had grown up very poor and was never able to take dancing lessons. When Tallchief and her sister Marjorie showed interest in dancing their mother immediately placed them in lessons. Tallchief excelled at dance and music. During her teen years, the family moved to Los Angeles, California in hopes of securing advanced ballet training for their daughters and opportunities for them to dance professionally.
Upon graduating from high school, Tallchief moved to New York City to pursue ballet full time. She was selected as an apprentice with the Ballet Russe, the premier Russian ballet company in the United States. As her career began to take off, many tried to persuade Tallchief to change her last name so that dance companies would not discriminate against her. She refused and continued to perform as Maria Tallchief. In 1947, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. After marrying choreographer George Balanchine, who created her signature Firebird role, she became prima ballerina of the New City Ballet. One of Tallchief’s best-known roles was the Sugar Plum Fairy which she originated in The Nutcracker. In 1960, Tallchief performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow making her the first American to do so.
After retiring from dancing, Tallchief and her sister opened the Chicago City Ballet, a ballet school and dance company. Never forgetting her Native American ancestry, she spoke out against injustices and discrimination. Tallchief not only broke barriers for Native Americans, she also became one of the only American dancers of her era recognized as a reigning prima ballerina and international superstar. Tallchief died on April 11, 2013.