April 13th, 2013

RIP Maria Tallchief

Ah, well do I remember her—tall, elegant, slightly exotic in her dark good looks, gracious, and somewhat removed and patrician as a dancer.

Confession: I wasn’t all that keen on her style, which I perceived as remote, and actually didn’t see her in person all that much. But she was a romantic figure, first for marrying and divorcing Balanchine, and then of course for being half native-American and having a great great name.

Looking at her bio now that she has died at the age of 88, I see that her Osage father was more or less a ne’er-do-well, and her Scots-Irish mother (in an interesting twist) had been the Tallchief family’s housekeeper and cook. Tallchief was from Oklahoma but her formative teenage years were spent studying dance in Los Angeles; I very much doubt she would have attained the requisite level of dance skills had she stayed in the Oklahoma of her era.

As for her name, the Wiki article says that towards the beginning of her career during the 1940s the New York City Ballet requested that she change it to “Maria Tallchieva.” It seems almost humorous at this point, since it was in part her name that seemed so attractive. She did consent to contract her original two-word name “Tall Chief” into the single word “Tallchief,” but that was all. A very smart move.

Here’s an article an alert reader sent me, containing a video about Tallchief and a bevy of other native-American ballet dancers of her day (sorry, there’s a brief ad at the beginning which I cannot seem to get rid of):

Interesting. I have a question, though: at minute 1:45 there is a still photo that immediately struck me as not being of Tallchief or any of the other ballet dancers featured in the clip. To me, it looks like a photo of Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso, perhaps with Rudolf Nureyev. Both she and Tallchief danced very briefly with Nureyev towards the end of their careers. Any ballet scholars among you have a clue whether I’m right about the photo?

[UPDATE: An alert reader has kindly informed me that the photo in question is of Rosella Hightower. On looking her up, I have to say she somewhat resembles Alonso; I hadn't previously been all that familiar with Hightower's looks, and I don't think I ever saw her dance. The photo in question appeared in this obituary for Hightower, and her partner had indeed been the very distinctive-looking Rudolph Nureyev, a piece of ballet history of which I was unaware (or had forgotten), perhaps because the bulk of her career took place in Europe:

[Hightower was Rudolf Nureyev's partner] on his first, sensational appearance in Britain in 1961.

Long one of Nureyev’s closest friends, she was his predecessor as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet and also founded the world’s most important ballet students’ prize, the Prix de Lausanne.

As the first 20th-century American ballerina to become a resident European star, Rosella Hightower spent most of her career in France, where her ballet school in Cannes has become world-renowned. Her home state of Oklahoma, proud of its five American Indian ballerinas, commissioned a mural depicting Hightower, the sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau and Moscelyne Larkin, which was unveiled in the State Capitol in Oklahoma City in 1991.

Hightower led an exceptionally interesting-sounding and achievement-filled life, if her obituary is any guide.]

6 Responses to “RIP Maria Tallchief”

  1. Brad Says:

    Well, she certainly has 15/16s on the MA Sen!

  2. Fausta Says:

    I can’t tell if it’s Alonso or anyone else in the Nureyev photo.

  3. Peter Says:

    What I find interesting is how five women could rise so high in the ballet world and they all came from this one tribe in Oklahoma. What are the odds?

  4. OlderandWheezier Says:

    The Tallchief family (including two of the five native American ballerinas, Maria and Marjorie) are members of the Osage tribe. However, the other three apparently are or were from other tribes.

    The Osage, I believe, were one of the first tribes to benefit from oil exploration in northwestern Oklahoma. Which may have made it possible for families such as the Tallchiefs either to move or to send their children to study with some of the finest ballet teachers in the country.

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    So your saying tall cheif looks like high tower

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Artfldgr: Actually, I was saying that Hightower looks like Alonso.

    But I get the pun :-).

    And come to think of it, Tallchief was rather tall, as this video will show. When she walks next to Nureyev and is not en pointe, she is nearly his height, as far as I can see. And he was about 5′ 8″–although, like most dancers, he looked taller on stage.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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