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Maria Tallchief’s life has been defined by artistic genius – her own and that of her husband, choreographer George Balanchine. A seminal figure in the world of ballet, Balanchine used Tallchief’s grace, talent and beauty as his muse. Her onstage presence – she was the embodiment of a prima ballerina – inspired his art as he placed her at the center of his work. Tallchief helped him launch the New York City Ballet, dancing – with exquisite grace and expression – the ballets her husband created.
It had been a long journey from an Indian reservation in Oklahoma to the stages of New York and Paris. Born with perfect pitch, Tallchief’s training began at age three, in piano and dance. Her ambitious mother was determined to make her daughter a success, and family money paid for good teachers. By age eight, Tallchief was studying ballet in Los Angeles and, by 17 she was in the corps of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Paris. She was the first American ballerina to dance at the Paris Opera, and although audiences were resistant to American talent, she quickly won them over.
It was at the Ballet Russe, in 1944, that she met Balanchine. “The musicality of the man was magical,” she said. Although she was only one of many dancers in the troupe, Balanchine took notice of Tallchief – perhaps because they shared an understanding of music as well as dance. They married soon after, and Tallchief began dancing to Balanchine’s choreography of Firebird, Orpheus and Swam Lake ballets. She danced in Paris and New York where, in 1954, she was the original Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Critics raved, describing Tallchief “as a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance. Does she have any equals anywhere…? One is tempted to doubt it.” During her years with Balanchine, Tallchief was considered one of the finest dancers in the world.
When her marriage ended, she joined the Ballet Russe as guest artist, earning the highest salary of any dancer. Not long after defecting from Russia, Rudolf Nureyev chose her as his partner when he made his American television debut in 1962.
In 1965, Tallchief retired from dancing, but not from the world of dance. Devoting herself to teaching, she has passed on her love and knowledge of ballet to younger dancers. In 1996, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center and, in 1999, a National Medal of the Arts.
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