Maria Tallchief, America’s Most Famous Prima Ballerina

Although she became one of the most famous prima ballerinas in America, Maria Tallchief was a young girl much like many other young girls her age. She loved horses and exploring the wide, open spaces of nature. She was born in Oklahoma, the daughter of a Native American Indian Chief of the Osage Nation. Her mother had dreams for Maria and her sister, Marjorie, to become famous entertainers. When Maria was three, she was sent to ballet class. Even when she was young, she was already working very hard. Her days were filled with schoolwork and ballet and music lessons. She and her sister often performed at local events and rodeos.
In 1933, when Maria was eight, the family packed up the car and drove to Los Angeles to start a new life. Maria was amazed to see huge groves of orange trees and the Pacific Ocean, which scared her a bit, since she had never seen so much water before. Before she knew it, her mother had found a new place to live and a new ballet school, right in the neighborhood where they made their first stop after arriving in Los Angeles.
Maria never really committed to being a ballerina until she was twelve, when she began classes with the famous Russian ballerina named Bronisalva Nijinska, who had a powerful personality, and was a very demanding teacher. From her, Maria learned to be disciplined and precise and that being a dancer requires hard work. It was at this time that she made the choice to become a ballerina and dedicate herself to her art.
Her burning desire to dance brought her to many places, including Europe, where she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Paris Opera. While she was in Europe, she met George Balanchine, a Russian choreographer. She became his wife, and they returned to America, where he founded the New York City Ballet. Maria became the company’s first prima ballerina. She danced as many as eight performances a week, and her legend grew because she was such an energetic and powerful dancer. Balanchine created more than thirty-two ballets for her, including The Firebird, and the Sugarplum Fairy in the Nutcracker. The ballets she danced were very difficult, but her dancing looked effortless. Her complete devotion, discipline and hard work made her incredibly famous.
Tallchief danced with New York City Ballet until 1960, although she was a guest artist in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1955-1956, where she was paid the highest salary a dancer had ever received. In 1962She was Rudolph Nuryev’s chosen partner for his first televised American performance after he defected from Russia. She continued to dance with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater and other groups until her retirement in 1965. The announcement of her retirement came as a shock, since she was only forty-one years old, but she made the decision to retire while she was still in her prime.
She chose to share her considerable knowledge and love of dance with other young dancers, teaching them to devote themselves with a single point of focus as dancers. She founded the Chicago City Ballet with her sister Marjorie in 1981, and served as artistic director there until 1987 and artistic advisor to Chicago Festival Ballet from 1990 through present day. She has received the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C.