George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker premiered February 2, 1954, in a flurry of last-minute disasters. Maria Tallchief, Balanchine’s original Sugar Plum Fairy, found herself in the middle of the mess: Not only did her mint-green tutu arrive just hours before curtain, but her cavalier, André Eglevsky—who, in typical Balanchine fashion, had no understudy—suffered a bad sprained ankle the day before the opening and was forced to bow out.
Yet when Tallchief swept onto New York City Center’s stage (accompanied by her replacement cavalier, Nicholas Magallanes), she betrayed no opening-night jitters. “You couldn’t rattle Maria,” says Robert Lindgren, one of Tallchief’s longtime colleagues, who watched that first Nutcracker performance from the wings. Breezing through Balanchine’s fiendishly difficult version of the Sugar Plum duet with serene, authoritative grace—undergirded by her rock-solid classical technique—Tallchief was characteristically unflappable. “Does she have any equals anywhere, inside or outside of fairyland?” asked critic Walter Terry in his review of the ballet’s opening. “While watching her in The Nutcracker, one is tempted to doubt it.”
Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her mother, Ruth Porter, was a young Scots-Irish woman; her father, Joseph Tall Chief, a full-blooded Osage Indian. Betty Marie, as they called their oldest daughter, was shy and well-behaved. She dedicated herself dutifully to piano lessons and ballet classes, demonstrating considerable talent in both. But it was not until the family relocated to Los Angeles, where she began studying with the legendary Bronislava Nijinska, that then 12-year-old Betty Marie truly fell in love with dance. During her five years of study with Nijinska, she acquired a formidable technique, mastering the endless balances and rapid multiple pirouettes that would later become her trademarks.
In 1942, at age 17, Betty Marie joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Shortly after, at the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing Rodeo on the company, she took the name Maria Tallchief. (“There are too many Bettys and Elizabeths in ballet,” de Mille told her.) Tallchief thrived in the troupe, and she was soon dancing soloist roles in Schéhérazade, Léonide Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne and Nijinska’s Chopin Concerto. She also became a master poker player, as Lindgren, who was dancing with the Ballet Russe at the time, remembers. “We used to play every day on the train, traveling from location to location,” he says. “She was intensely focused and impossible to read—so she cleaned house.”
Balanchine was a veteran choreographer when he first worked with Tallchief in the spring of 1944; the Ballet Russe had already performed his Apollo and Prodigal Son to great acclaim. But Tallchief, who was suffering through a bad breakup when she began rehearsing Balanchine’s operetta Song of Norway, “wasn’t especially impressed” with the choreographer, as she remembers in her autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina. She took little notice of him until they came to a passage in the operetta set to the Grieg Piano Concerto, a score she was familiar with from her days as a piano student. “He was the first choreographer in my experience who approached a score like a musician,” Tallchief recalls in her book. “He broke down the inherent rhythm of the music to make the steps more exciting.” She was fascinated.
The interest was mutual. Balanchine was impressed by Tallchief’s speed and strength and also intrigued by her Native American heritage—he saw her as the first truly American ballerina. Soon she was dancing leads in his ballets, including Danses Concertantes, Baiser de la Fée and Night Shadow (later called La Sonnambula). Balanchine also reshaped Tallchief’s technique. “If you would only learn to do battement tendu properly,” he famously told her, “you wouldn’t have to learn anything else.” Tallchief dedicated herself completely to his back-to-basics method, refining her feet and legs and perfecting the placement of her arms down to her fingers. Her signature tricks acquired a new polish.
Tallchief and Balanchine’s intense professional relationship blossomed into romance, and on August 16, 1946, they married. Shortly thereafter, Tallchief became the leading dancer in Balanchine’s New York–based company Ballet Society, which later metamorphosed into the New York City Ballet. The American public fell in love with Tallchief’s precise yet vibrant interpretations of the roles Balanchine created for her: Eurydice in Orpheus, the sylph-like lead in Scotch Symphony, the adagio part in Bourrée Fantastique and the first Sugar Plum Fairy. One of the greatest triumphs of Tallchief’s career was the 1949 Firebird. As the magical creature, Tallchief was “unbelievable, absolutely electric,” recalls Lindgren.
“Balanchine gave her fantastically difficult things to do, and she did them without blinking.” On opening night, the audience chanted “Tallchief! Tallchief! Tallchief!” during the star’s 10-plus curtain calls.
By the early 1950s, however, Balanchine’s attention began to shift to other dancers (and, after the couple’s divorce in 1951, to another wife). Tallchief rejoined the Ballet Russe for the 1955 and 1956 seasons, where she received a fantastic salary that reflected her worldwide popularity. Though she returned to the New York City Ballet briefly in 1958, Tallchief chose to leave the company for good two years later. She joined American Ballet Theatre, where she partnered Rudolf Nureyev in his American debut in 1962. Tallchief also remarried; her daughter, Elise Paschen, was born in 1959.
Tallchief announced her retirement in 1965, at the relatively young age of 41, and turned her attention to teaching and coaching. She became artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975, and in 1981 she founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she tended to the Balanchine ballets that made up the bulk of the company’s repertory. Tallchief left Chicago City Ballet in 1987 shortly before it folded. But for several years afterward she continued to set a number of Balanchine’s works on companies around the country for the George Balanchine Trust. “She was a marvelous teacher,” says Nancy Reynolds, director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation, which made several videotapes of Tallchief rehearsing NYCB dancers in the 1990s for its archives. “She’s extremely exacting, with a razor-sharp memory. Her devotion to dance, and to dancers, is enormous, and she has fabulous insight into what makes dance ‘tick’ onstage.”
In one of the Balanchine Foundation tapes, Tallchief talks a very young, very nervous Jennie Somogyi, who later became a NYCB principal, through the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. Tallchief is graceful, poised and extremely tough. At one point she stops the pianist. “You’re doing it, Jennie, but you’re not doing it correctly,” she says, adjusting Somogyi’s head placement so that her face will catch the light. After clarifying a few other details of the hands and feet, Tallchief signals for the pianist to begin again. “Nobody knows how hard this is,” she says with a wry smile, “because nobody does it right.”
About to celebrate her 85th birthday, Tallchief, now retired, lives in Chicago. Her daughter Elise inherited her mother’s gift for creative expression: She’s a well-known poet and teaches in the MFA writing program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In her poem “The Other Mother,” she writes:
Because she is my mother, every night she turns into Cinderella. In the wings I watch . . . DT
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives