Maria Tallchief, a daughter of an Oklahoma oil family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century, died Thursday in Chicago. She was 88.
Her daughter, the poet Elise Paschen, confirmed the death. Tallchief lived in Chicago.
A former wife of the choreographer George Balanchine, Tallchief achieved renown with Balanchine’s City Ballet, dazzling audiences with her speed, energy and fire. Indeed, the part that catapulted her to acclaim was the title role in the company’s version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” one of many that Balanchine created for her in 1949.
The choreographer Jacques d’Amboise, who was a 15-year-old corps dancer in Balanchine’s “Firebird” before becoming one of City Ballet’s stars, 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,” he said an interview on Friday. “With English ballet, it was Fonteyn. For American ballet, it was Tallchief. She was grand in the grandest way.”
A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the state nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born in at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas: The others included her younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, as well as Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau.
Growing up at a time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names, Tallchief, proud of her Indian heritage, refused to do so, even though friends told her that it would be easy to transform Tallchief into Tallchieva.
Elizabeth Marie Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Okla., in a small hospital on Jan. 24, 1925. Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was a 6-foot-2, full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized and women found strikingly handsome, Tallchief would later write. (She and her sister joined their surnames when they began dancing professionally.)
Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, met Tall Chief, a widower, while visiting her sister, who was a cook and housekeeper for Tall Chief’s mother.
In the summer of 1944, Balanchine, a resident choreographer for the Ballet Russe, cast Tallchief in such works as “Danses Concertantes,” “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” “Ballet Imperial” and “Le Baiser de la Fee.”
Balanchine paid increasing attention to Tallchief, and she became increasingly fond of him, admiring him as a choreographic genius and liking him as a courtly, sophisticated friend. Yet it came as an utter surprise when he asked her to marry him. After careful thought, she finally agreed, and they were married on Aug. 16, 1946.
It was an unusual marriage. As she wrote in her autobiography: “Passion and romance didn’t play a big part in our married life. We saved our emotions for the classroom.” Yet, she added, “George was a warm, affectionate, loving husband.”
In addition to “Firebird,” Balanchine created many striking roles for her at the City Ballet, including those of the Swan Queen in his version of “Swan Lake,” the Sugar Plum Fairy in his version of “The Nutcracker,” Eurydice in “Orpheus” and principal roles in such plotless works as “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” “Allegro Brillante,” “Pas de Dix” and “Scotch Symphony.”
After she and Balanchine were divorced in 1950, she remained with the City Ballet until 1965. But she also took time off to dance with other companies, and she portrayed Anna Pavlova in the Hollywood movie “Million Dollar Mermaid” in 1952.
Among her honors, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.
Tallchief was married to Elmourza Natirboff, an aviator, from 1952 to ‘54. In 1956 she married Henry Paschen, who eventually became president of his family’s business, Paschen Contractors, in Chicago.
Besides her daughter, Paschen, and her sister, her survivors include two grandchildren.