In Los Angeles, Maria was back on square one in both school and dancing. In school, it was a frustrating experience; she found herself far beyond the learning of her classmates and often felt bored. It was also here that Tall Chief became Tallchief. “Some of the students made fun of my last name, pretending they didn’t understand if it was Tall or Chief. … Eventually, I turned the spelling of my last name into one word. Everything in school was in strict alphabetical order and I wanted to avoid confusion.”
In dance, square one was a lifesaver.
In those little ballet classes in the hotel basement, Maria and Marjorie had been training on pointe. Most ballet schools prohibit pointe work until the student is 11 years old, if not closer to 13. Begun too early, pointe can irreparably injure the legs of growing dancers. This new L.A.-based teacher immediately halted any pointe training and started the girls over from the basics, likely saving both their careers.
At 17, Maria graduated from Beverly Hills High School. She considered college, but her father objected. Maria recalled, “‘You know, I’ve paid for your [ballet] lessons all your life and now it’s time for you to find a job,’ he said. I was surprised, but ages seventeen through twenty are important years for a dancer.” Maria quickly found opportunities, including in the Judy Garland film Presenting Lily Mars in 1943. “Daddy was proud.” This experience also helped Maria determine that dancing in film wasn’t her passion.
Instead, she took to the stage. She worked briefly in New York, and then a long stint in Russia where she was quite unhappy. The Russian dancers resented dancers from the United States, who they believed to be inferior, and Maria was frequently pressured to change her surname to something less exotic to Russians. She refused to change Tallchief, but did concede that Betty Marie was worth changing (there were many other Bettys in ballet at the time) and officially became Maria.
The job was good for her career, but not always her body. “Food was scarce,” she wrote. “Our salaries did not allow for gourmet meals. … I wasn’t eating well.” When she returned to her family in Los Angeles, her mother was alarmed by her poor health. Ruth wanted Maria to return to piano, but despite its challenges, Maria was hooked: she loved performing on stage. Reading the reviews Maria had received—“[Tallchief] has an easy brilliance that smacks of authority rather than bravura,” wrote a renowned New York Times dance critic—convinced Ruth to let her daughter keep dancing.
In 1944, Maria met George Balanchine, a choreographer who is sometimes called the father of modern American ballet. George, in his 40s, was immediately taken with Maria. “It never occurred to me that there was anything more than dancing on his mind,” she recalled, but later, when he proposed, she accepted. The couple were married on August 16, 1946, when Maria was just 21. Her parents did not approve.
The marriage was short-lived, lasting just four years, but their partnership endured. Maria became George’s muse and the two worked together as dancer and choreographer until 1960, creating some of the most iconic moments in ballet, including Maria’s stints as the Swan Queen, Eurydice, and Sugar Plum Fairy. “Maria Tallchief, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, is herself a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with her radiance of being,” effused one critic. “Does she have equals anywhere, inside or outside of fairyland? While watching her in The Nutcracker, one is tempted to doubt it.”
Maria’s love life seems to have been as varied and exciting as her stage life. In 1952, she married pilot Elmourza Natirboff, but the two divorced just two years later. In 1956, she married Henry D. Paschen Jr., a businessman from Chicago, whose lack of ballet knowledge was “very refreshing” to Maria. The two honeymooned in Europe on a ballet tour and had one child, a daughter, born in 1959. This union would last until Henry died in 2004.
After leaving the New York City Ballet in 1966, Maria performed on variety television shows, in movie musicals, and as prima ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre. George, who remained close until his death in 1983, urged her to join the Hamburg Ballet in Germany. She danced in Germany, Europe, Japan, Russia, and South America before retiring from ballet in 1966 at age 41.
After retirement, she moved to Chicago with husband Henry, but remained involved in ballet as an administrator and a teacher of George’s particular dance style. In 1981, she and Marjorie, who also had a successful ballet career, founded the Chicago City Ballet, which ran until 1987. In the following decades, she received numerous awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in 1996 and an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She, and three other Native American ballerinas, appear in a mural called “Flight of Spirit,” which decorates the Oklahoma Capital building. A life-size statue of her stands in the Tulsa Historical Society.
Marie died in 2013 from complications of a hip injury suffered the year before. At her funeral, her daughter Elise said, “My mother was a ballet legend who was proud of her Osage heritage. ... She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did.”
Among the Osage people, Maria is remembered as “Princess Wa-Xthe-Thomba,” or “Woman of Two Worlds.”
Wikipedia: Maria Tallchief
Biography.com: Maria Tallchief
Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina
Criteria for Pointe Work
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