Maria Tallchief

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Date: Jan. 8, 2015
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Biography
Length: 728 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1100L

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About this Person
Born: January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma, United States
Died: April 11, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Ballet dancer
Other Names: Tall Chief, Elizabeth Marie
Updated:Jan. 8, 2015
Full Text: 

  • The Life and Times of Maria Tallchief (1925-)

  • At the time of Tallchief's birth:
  • Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States
  • Chrysler Corp. was founded
  • John T. Scopes went on trial for teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools
  • Worst tornado in U.S. history hit Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana; killed 689 people
  • The times:
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1950-1953: Korean War
  • 1957-1975: Vietnam War
  • Tallchief's contemporaries:
  • Charlie Parker (1920-1955) American jazz musician
  • Alice Childress (1920-1994) American writer
  • Judy Garland (1922-1969) American actress and singer
  • Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) American entertainer
  • Bob Fosse (1927-1987) American dancer
  • Beverly Sills (1929-) American opera singer
  • Robert Joffrey (1930-1988) American dancer
  • Selected world events:
  • 1926: David Sarnoff founded National Broadcasting Company
  • Josephine Baker opened her own Paris nightclub at age 20
  • 1932: New York's Radio City Music Hall opened
  • 1939: First transatlantic passenger flight
  • 1945: Television was licensed for commercial use in the U.S.
  • 1951: J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye published
  • 1975: Discothèques gained popularity in major U.S. and Europe; disco would remain popular until 1979
  • 1981: Attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan failed

Maria Tallchief (born 1925) was a world-renowned ballerina and one of the premiere American ballerinas of all time. She was the first American to dance at the Paris Opera and has danced with the Paris Opera Ballet, the Ballet Russe, and with the Balanchine Ballet Society (New York City Ballet). Tallchief passed away in April of 2013 at the age of 88.

Early Life

Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on January 24, 1925. She was raised in a wealthy family. Her grandfather had helped negotiate the Osage treaty, which created the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma and later yielded a bonanza in oil revenues for some Osage people. Tallchief began dance and music lessons at age four. By age eight, she and her sister had exhausted the training resources in Oklahoma, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California. By age twelve, Tallchief was studying under Madame Nijinska (sister of the great Nijinsky) and David Lichine, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Pavlova. At age fifteen at the Hollywood Bowl, Tallchief danced her first solo performance in a number choreographed by Nijinska.


Following high school, it was apparent that ballet would be Tallchief's life. Instead of college, she joined the Ballet Russe, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe. Tallchief was initially treated with skepticism--the Russian troupe was unwilling to recognize the Native American's greatness. When choreographer George Balanchine took control of the company, however, he recognized Tallchief's talent and selected her for the understudy role in The Song of Norway. Under Balanchine, Tallchief's reputation grew, and she was eventually given the title of ballerina. During this time, Tallchief married Balanchine, and when he moved to Paris, she went with him.

As with the Ballet Russe, Tallchief was initially treated with condescension in Paris. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, and Tallchief's talent quickly won French audiences over. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. She quickly became the ranking soloist and, soon after, joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now the New York City Ballet. At the New York City Ballet, Tallchief became recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. When she became the prima ballerina, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title. In 1949, Tallchief danced what was perhaps her greatest role in the Balanchine-choreographed version of the Firebird. Balanchine had choreographed the role for Tallchief, and her dazzling blend of physical control and mysticism enchanted audiences.

Later Life

In the late 1960s, Tallchief retired from performances and took charge of the Chicago City Ballet. She was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999. Film director Sandy Osawa wanted Tallchief's story to be remembered and created the film America's First Prima Ballerina, which depicted Tallchief's life. Osawa said, "I am honored to be the one to introduce Maria Tallchief to both old fans and a new generation of fans." The film aired on PBS in November 2007. Maria Tallchief passed away at the age of 88 on April 11, 2013, in Chicago.


National Women's Hall of Fame, 1996; Kennedy Center Honor, 1996; National Medal of the Arts, 1999.


Myers, Elisabeth P. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina, Grosset & Dunlap, 1966.

Boston Globe, April 13, 1997.

Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1989.

Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1987.

Washington Post, April 20, 1997.

"Makah Filmmaker's 'Maria Tallchief' airs on PBS," Censored News, 25, 2011).

"Maria Tallchief," IMDb, (Jan. 8, 2015).

"Maria Tallchief, a Dazzling Ballerina and Muse for Balanchine, Dies at 88," New York Times, (Jan. 8, 2015).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1631006385