In California, Tallchief began serious ballet studies with legendary choreographer and teacher Bronislava Nijinska, and fell in love with the strict art form. Soon she performed at the Hollywood Bowl and danced in a Judy Garland film.
His big break came after high school, in 1942, when he joined the Russian Ballet in Monte Carlo on a tour of Canada and the United States. In its tours, the company premieres new ballets, promotes avant-garde composers and choreographers, and gives new life to the art, introducing ballet to people across the continent.
At that time, ballet was considered an elitist, mostly European tradition, dominated by Russian dancers. No American woman identified as “first ballerina overall“, the highest honor within the profession. The Russian Ballet has contributed to bringing this art closer to our country.
However, the company’s American dancers were forced to change their names to sound “more Russian,” and Tallchief was encouraged to change her last name to Tallchieva. But he refused. Although he adopted his middle name as his first, he did not want to give up his roots. “Tallchief is my heritage and I’m proud of it,” he later wrote.
“He was fierce in his loyalty and determination,” says poet and editor Elise Paschen, Tallchief’s daughter.
That determination caught the attention of one of the world’s most famous choreographers, George Balanchine. They got married in 1946.
“I was his wife, but also his dancer,” she later wrote. “He is my husband, but also my choreographer. He is a poet and I am his muse.” He followed her to Paris, France, becoming the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. Wherever he danced, he attracted attention, and Balanchine gave him more unusual roles.
In 1949, Tallchief danced the strangest of all: the title role in Balanchine’s revival of The fire bird for the newly formed New York City Ballet. Composed by Igor Stravinsky and featuring sets designed by Marc Chagall, the ballet is dynamic and passionate. This is the perfect vehicle for the Tallchief.
“Everyone had to go see this amazing, beautiful creature,” dance critic Jordan Levin later recalled. Critics and the public praised his performance. “Maria Tallchief… honors the style of first ballerina overall“wrote one critic The Guardian, which refers to the highest ranking for women in the world of ballet. He raised one curtain after another as the entire audience screamed his name.
The career that followed was stratospheric. Tallchief now symbolizes a new era for American ballet. Passionate, charming and powerful, she became a household name. Like most of her roles, from the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s revival of The Nutcracker even the Queen of Swans in her new version of Swan Lake is a lake in the United States. In the 1950s, she earned more than any other dancer of her time.