Maria Tallchief and Michael Maule dancing an excerpt from George Balanchine's
Firebird, with music by Igor Stravinsky, recorded at Jacob's Pillow in 1951.
Tallchief's role as the magic bird captured by a Russian prince remains her
best-known, and she was praised by critics for the virtuosity of her dancing and
the brilliance of her transformation into a creature of air and fire. From the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives.


Maria Tallchief in George Balanchine's <i>Le Baiser de la Fée Pictured left: Maria Tallchief in George Balanchine's Le Baiser de la Fée, one of many ballets in which the choreographer explored woman as muse and as unattainable object, a theme that is interwoven with his marriages to dancers for whom he created works, including Tallchief, who was married to Balanchine from 1946 to 1951. (Photograph by Maurice Seymour. Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.)


Maria Tallchief is an American Indian prima ballerina who became one of the seminal stars at New York City Ballet and went on to nurture ballet in Chicago. Born on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, Tallchief began studying dance with Bronislava Nijinska in Los Angeles. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she caught the eye of choreographer George Balanchine, who would become her husband in 1946 and who would choreograph many significant works for her. She was a vital presence in the early years of New York City Ballet in the 1950s, originating the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine's Nutcracker as well as her signature role, the Firebird, in Balanchine's version of the ballet. She was hailed by critics and beloved by audiences for her seemingly effortless grace, her dedication, musicality, and a stage presence described by both Lincoln Kirstein and critic Walter Terry as "electrifying." After leaving NYCB (and divorcing Balanchine), she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre, retiring in 1965. She went on to become artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975, and the founder and artistic director of Chicago City Ballet in 1981. Since 1990 she has been associated with the Chicago Festival Ballet.


Maria Tallchief in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments Pictured right: Maria Tallchief in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. Tallchief danced the role of Sanguinic in early performances of the ballet, which featured elaborate costumes later replaced by plain leotards. Tallchief recounted how Balanchine worked intensively to develop and transform her technique, making her one of the first ballerinas to embody the choreographer's trademark style. (Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.)


Learn more in Maria Tallchief, an essay by Tara Davis.