Remembering Ballet Legend, Maria Tallchief
In honor of Indigenous Peoples' Day (Native American Day), we want to highlight an amazing Native American woman who did much for ballet in America and also happened to be Miss Sherry's mentor!
“She was my teacher, mentor, coach, and my inspiration to strive for excellence in the Art of Ballet, and sometimes my Ballet mom for 13 years.” - Sherry Moray
Elizabeth Marie Tallchief was born in 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma on a tribal reservation. Her mother was Irish-Scottish and her father was an Osage Nation Native. She started dancing at age 3 and after a move to Los Angeles, she studied with Madame Bronislava Nijinski - a prominent choreographer from Poland. Madame Nijinski shaped her into a precise, elegant dancer.
At age 17, Tallchief moved to New York and spent the next five years with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (which had relocated from Paris to NY), and
soon became a soloist with the company. Headlines from her first performance at the Paris Opera read, “Redskin dances at the Opera.” One of many painful discriminations she suffered throughout her life. Because the ballet world was so dominated by Russian and European dancers, she was told to change her name to “Tallchleva,” but she refused.
It was while at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that she met renowned Russian choreographer, George Balanchine. He demanded the dancers in his choreographies have grace, strength, and speed. Maria perfected all of these and the pair were drawn together. They married in 1946 and moved back to New York to co-found the New York City Ballet. She was placed front and center in every piece, with her most signature roles in The Firebird and The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy). At one point, she was the highest paid ballerina of her time.
Tallchief retired at the age of 41, divorced Balanchine, and moved to Chicago, where she remarried, had a daughter and began her career as an instructor, choreographer, and director. She was the Ballet Director at Lyric Opera of Chicago through most of the 1970s, and debuted the Chicago City Ballet in 1974.
Notable honors include being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and receiving the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor (in 1996) for lifetime achievements. Not only did she blaze a trail for other Native American dancers like herself, she put American ballet and Americans in ballet on the map. Maria Tallchief died in 2013 at the age of 88.
SHERRY MORAY ON MARIA TALLCHIEF
I was so fortunate to work with amazing teachers/coaches in Europe from the age of 13 years old. My first mentor, the fabulous choreographer and Director of The Stuttgart Ballet, John Cranko, created a ballet for me at the age of 14 - Children’s Corner, with music by Debussy.
I first met Maria Tallchief after returning from Europe and attended her class at the Chicago Opera House. I was truly blown away by her teaching style and quickly realized I could learn much under the
tutelage of this phenomenal woman. Miss Tallchief apparently saw a young Ballerina she could mold and immediately offered me a contract for The Chicago City Ballet Company. Once again I was blessed with a new mentor and I quickly rose to the rank of principal dancer under her Directorship.
Among the many gifts of ballet knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, one stands out…“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” - Antonie de Saint-Exupery (French Novelist)
Maria lived and danced by this quote of wisdom which applies to the purity of classical movement in Ballet. She also taught me what true presence was and how to capture an audience and hold them in the palm of your hand.
With the many nuggets of wisdom I received from Tallchief, I am adamant about sharing these gifts with my students in every class, rehearsal, and private lesson. Like Miss Tallchief, I am spending the second half of my career as a teacher and mentor and feel very fortunate to follow in her footsteps in bringing the art of ballet to The Academy of Dance Arts students.