Maria Tallchief, acclaimed American ballerina; at 88

Maria Tallchief danced the title role in a George Balanchine production of ‘Firebird.’ Below, after a long rehearsal.
Maria Tallchief danced the title role in a George Balanchine production of ‘Firebird.’ Below, after a long rehearsal.

NEW YORK — 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. Ms. Tallchief lived in Chicago.

A former wife of and muse to the choreographer George Balanchine, Ms. 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 1949 version of Stravinsky’s ‘‘Firebird,’’ one of many that Balanchine created for her.


A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, and the sister of another noted ballerina, Marjorie Tallchief, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the region nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born in Oklahoma at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas: The others included her sister and Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin, and Yvonne Chouteau.

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Growing up at a time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names, Ms. 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 tall, full-blooded Osage Indian whom his daughters idolized and women found strikingly handsome, Ms. Tallchief would later write. Her mother, the former Ruth Porter, was originally hired as a cook and housekeeper for Ms. Tallchief’s paternal grandmother.

‘‘When Daddy was a boy, oil was discovered on Osage land, and overnight the tribe became rich,’’ Ms. Tallchief wrote in ‘‘Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina,’’ her 1997 autobiography written with Larry Kaplan. ‘‘As a young girl growing up on the Osage reservation in Fairfax, Oklahoma, I felt my father owned the town. He had property everywhere. The local movie theater on Main Street, and the pool hall opposite, belonged to him. Our ten-room, terra-cotta-brick house stood high on a hill overlooking the reservation.’’

She had her first ballet lessons in Colorado Springs, the summer vacation home of the Tall Chief family. (She later joined the two names for professional reasons.) She also studied piano and ballet with local teachers in Oklahoma. Blessed with perfect pitch, she contemplated becoming a concert pianist.


But dance occupied her attention after the family, which felt confined in Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when she was 8. The day they arrived, her mother took her daughters into a drugstore for a snack at the soda fountain. While they waited for their order, Ruth Tall Chief chatted with a druggist and casually asked him if he happened to know of a good dancing teacher. He recommended Ernest Belcher.

As Ms. Tallchief recalled in her memoir, ‘‘An anonymous man in an unfamiliar town decided our fate with those few words.’’

Belcher, the father of the television and film star Marge Champion, was an excellent teacher, and Ms. Tallchief soon realized that her early training in Oklahoma had been so bad as to be potentially ruinous to her limbs. At 12 she started studies with Bronislava Nijinska, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and sister of famed dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who had opened a studio in Los Angeles.

Nijinska, a formidable pedagogue, began to give Ms. Tallchief special encouragement. But she also had classes with other distinguished teachers who passed through Los Angeles. One of them, Tatiana Riabouchinska, became her chaperone on a trip to New York City, which since the outbreak of World War II had become the base of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the leading touring companies of that day. She joined the troupe in 1942.

Nijinska cast Ms. Tallchief in some of her ballets. But she also danced in Agnes de Mille’s ‘‘Rodeo.’”


It was de Mille who suggested that Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief make Maria Tallchief her professional name.

In addition to ‘‘Firebird,’’ Balanchine created many striking roles for her, including those of the Swan Queen in his version of ‘‘Swan Lake,’’ and the Sugar Plum Fairy in his version of ‘‘The Nutcracker.’’

Among many other honors, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.