Maria Tallchief

"If anything at all, perfection is not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Maria Tallchief, Prima Ballerina, 1925-2013

The Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum honors Elizabeth Maria Tallchief, the first Indigenous prima ballerina in North America, remembered for revolutionizing ballet. She danced for the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo and was the star of the New York City ballet in the 1940s. Tallchief was also the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Born in Oklahoma to a father who was a member of the Osage Nation and a mother from a poor Irish-Scottish family, Tallchief started dance lessons at age three, as soon as she showed an interest. By the time she was 17, she had moved to New York city to pursue a career as a ballet dancer. She experienced discrimination because of the her Native American heritage in an art dominated by Russian dancers, and was repeatedly asked to change her surname. She refused. 

Eventually she landed at the Ballet Russe as an understudy. When its Prima Ballerina stepped down suddenly, Tallchief had her moment of fame, catapulting her into a career that would span the globe. Known for her energy, athleticism and grace, she was the muse to choreographer George Balanchine and they married briefly. Continuing their professional relationship, two of Tallchief’s best-known roles were in Balanchine’s versions of Swan Lake (1951), and as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker (1952) with the New York City Ballet, where she danced for 18 years. Balanchine once told an audience not to analyze ballet, but to appreciate it. “You cannot explain a flower,” he said.

She continued to support ballet throughout her career, as the director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In 1981, alongside her sister, she founded the Chicago City Ballet.


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