Maria Tallchief

One of the premiere American ballet dancers of all time, Maria Tallchief has been recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. She said of her passion, “A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own. Each individual brings something different to the same role.”

Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation, and began ballet and piano lessons at the age of three. Her family soon relocated to California, where she began to devote more of her time to dancing. By the age of 12, she was studying with notable teacher Bronislava Nijinska, and upon her graduation from high school, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Over the next five years, Tallchief attracted much attention with memorable performances, particularly of the works of choreographer George Balanchine.

After marrying Balanchine in 1946, the couple left the Ballet Russe and moved to Paris, France, where Tallchief became the first American ballerina to debut at the Paris Opera. Soon after, Tallchief and Balanchine formed the Balanchine Ballet Society, now known as the New York City Ballet. At the ballet, Tallchief became the first American dancer to achieve the title of prima ballerina, a title she held for 18 years. Among her most significant roles were Symphomie Concatenate, Orpheus, The Firebird, Scotch Symphony, Caracole, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Following her retirement from ballet in 1965, Tallchief served as artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet (1975). In 1980, she founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she served as the artistic director until 1987. When the State of Oklahoma honored Tallchief in 1953, she was given the name of Wa-Xthe-Thomba, meaning “Woman of Two Worlds,” a name that celebrates her international achievements as a prima ballerina and Native American. Tallchief was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999.

Tallchief’s legendary artistic style and excellence continues to inspire dancers worldwide.

Year Honored: 1996
Birth: 1925 - 2013
Born In: Oklahoma
Achievements: Arts
Worked In: Illinois, New York, France, United States of America
Educated In: California, United States of America