Remembering Maria Tallchief

April 11, 2013

Sadly, Maria Tallchief, often considered the first American ballerina, has died at 88. She was Balanchine’s muse (and for six years, his wife) in the early years of New York City Ballet. As Clive Barnes pointed out in these pages, it was partly her role as Eurydice in Balanchine’s Orpheus that led to the formation of NYCB in 1948. 


She was luminous as Eurydice, and daring as the Firebird. Francis Mason used to rhapsodize about the thrilling moment when she threw herself across the stage to land in the arms of her partner. The excitement of her dancing turned him into a lifelong Balanchine fan and dance writer and editor.


Tallchief’s achievements are memorialized in Lili Cockerille Livingston’s book American Indian Ballerinas. Her own autobiography, written with Larry Kaplan, is revealing about Balanchine as a man but more, as a ballet master who shaped his ballerinas through sheer hard work. She was also a demanding teacher at the School of American Ballet for years.


According to today’s obit in the Chicago Tribune, she was director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1970s, and founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 (which operated until 1987).


Tallchief is listed as one of the first 100 American dance treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition.


Stand by for a full “Transition” in a future issue and an online slide show.