In 1888, oil gurgled up from the first wells drilled in Oklahoma. Nearly two decades later, the Osage Indians of northern Oklahoma divided up mineral rights to their land--one headright for each Osage. They became the wealthiest Indians in the United States.
Into this world, 57 years ago, in the town of Fairfax, Okla., Maria Tallchief was born. When she was 7, her family moved to Beverly Hills. Her father, a fine athlete, played golf most of the time. She gave his occupation as "property owner." With this world of comfort came piano lessons and ballet classes. But the dance lessons became the obsession. Teacher followed teacher, each one unraveling the lessons of the previous. George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet was the last. He cultivated her, created roles for her, married her and made her a star.
Most of all, in regard to Maria Tallchief, Balanchine was attracted by her appearance and her potential abilities, by the way she moved--and by the way he saw that she would move after he had worked with her. Still with a little tender plump flesh on her, not pared down to the bone yet, the way Balanchine likes his dancers, she had a high chest and straight back, and she moved like a tiger. Under Balanchine's tutelage and in his ballets, she would win world renown.--From "Balanchine--A Biography," by Bernard Taper.
"At the age of 20 I was on the stage of the Paris Opera," she says. "It was exciting, nerve-racking. And, of course, my name. They were astounded. 'Tallchief? What's that?' They would translate it 'Grand-chef.' "
Her words come out husky and full, punctuated often with a low laugh. The former prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet is the founder and the artistic director of the 2-year-old Chicago City Ballet. She is in town for "Night of the First Americans," a benefit show at the Kennedy Center tonight, sponsored by the Council on Energy Resource Tribes. Proceeds will go toward the education of Indian students in engineering, science and business.
For the event, Tallchief has brought four dancers. "We only have three minutes," Tallchief says with a throaty chuckle about tonight's performance. "It's truly a gesture." She choreographed the segment. "The only Indian thing about it is me," she says.
It is a delicate subject--being two rarities, an American Indian and a famous ballerina. She recalls one interviewer in her early days in New York: "I remember I went to the Russian Tea Room with a Talk of the Town writer. I was 18 years old. 'Where did you get a name like that?' he asked. Then at the end, I said, 'What's your name?' and he said, 'Drinkwater.' And I thought, wait a minute, he's trying to make fun of my name?"
As a young girl, Tallchief and her sister, Marjorie--who danced with the Paris Opera Ballet--performed at rodeos and various community events. "I remember some dreadful man wanted us to wear feathers and play the piano," she says, an incredulous grin spreading across her face. "In fact, we once did an Indian dance which I will never forget. We had bells on. We actually danced to Indian music. In toe shoes and bells. My sister and I were glad when we outgrew those costumes. Mother took it very seriously. Of course," she says as an afterthought, "Mother wasn't Indian."
But she says she was never the object of discrimination because of her Indian heritage and name. "On the contrary," she says. "I guess it all depends on whether or not you have money. Isn't that sad?"
"She was the reigning ballerina," says choreographer and teacher Jacques d'Amboise, who joined the New York City Ballet in 1948. "I was always in love with her. She was brilliant, regal, exciting." He says he carried her picture around in his wallet. "She was a complete professional about her work . . . but she liked having a good time. She was a terrific poker player."
Says Edward Villella, who joined the New York City Ballet in 1957, "She was clean, clear, sharp. She was the quintessential Balanchine dancer of her day." Villella, now the artistic director of the Long Island Eglevsky Ballet Company, remembers that offstage, Tallchief "had that same kind of clear sense of her life, her self. She knew what she wanted." He added, "She was an avid poker player."
Tallchief retired from dancing at the age of 40 in 1965. Her five-year marriage to Balanchine had ended in annulment long before that. In 1957, she married Henry Paschen Jr., a Chicago businessman.
She is slender and attractive in a black suit and round-neckline blouse. She fidgets constantly-- kneading the linen napkin in her lap, jabbing the air, or playing an imaginary keyboard on the table.
She and her husband have an apartment on fashionable Lake Shore Drive and a house in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, near the beach. "When I married him, I thought he was going to move to New York," she says with a laugh. "Well, he was from an old Chicago family--three or four generations. His family practically built Chicago. We took Ulanova, the famed Russian ballerina, around Chicago once. My husband was showing her around, pointing things out, saying 'Now, I built this . . . I built that . . .' I said, 'Oh, I don't think she wants to see all this.' But she said to me, 'You showed us last night what you do. Now he's showing us what he does.' "
There was a time when Tallchief couldn't decide whether to be a concert pianist or a ballerina. "Mother was Scotch-Irish. She felt it was very important to get education in every way." She was taking piano at 2. Her first ballet lesson was at 4. She hated it.
Later a dance teacher from Tulsa came through town and gave lessons. "The teacher put me in toe shoes almost immediately," says Tallchief, referring to the technique of dancing on point, which usually requires several years of slowly building strength first. "It was almost criminal. There are pictures of me on toes with tears in my eyes, hanging onto the walls." She laughs, arms outstretched limply.
Growing up, she got up at 7 to practice piano for two hours. She practiced another hour in the afternoon. From 5:30 to 6:30, she danced. "Mother was the chauffeur," she says.
When Tallchief was 14, the Russian dancer/choreographer Bronislava Nijinska visited California and Tallchief took lessons. "It just happened that I was studying the Chopin Concerto in E minor when she choreographed a ballet to that," says Tallchief. "I performed at 15 with Cyd Charisse. She was a beautiful classical dancer."
At 18, she met Balanchine. "This was the master," she says. "I had to start all over again. Well, Nijinska choreographed too much. People say when I met him, I completely believed in him. I made myself completely over."
Tallchief and her husband live "very simply," she says. "We don't have any live-in help," she says. "We like to be very quiet. Everyone thinks my husband and I are great partygoers. We're not. We're usually the first to leave."
They do like to dance--rumba, jitterbug, ballroom dancing. "As my husband said, if he had to do it all over again, he'd be a ballet dancer," Tallchief says. "You're surrounded by all these beautiful women!"
Tallchief's daughter, Elise, is now a 23-year-old senior at Harvard. "My husband was very adamant," Tallchief says. "He did not want her to dance. I remember so well when she was 12. George Balanchine came through town and said, 'Send her to New York. We'll take care of her.' I said, 'Oh, George, I've waited all these years to have this child. You're not taking her away.' "