Elizabeth Maria Tallchief (born January 24, 1925) was the first Native American to become prima ballerina. From 1942 to 1947 she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she is even better known for her time with the New York City Ballet, from its founding in 1947 through 1965. Known professionally as Maria Tallchief, her family called her Betty Marie. Betty learned the Osage traditions from her grandmother, Eliza Bigheart Tallchief. Maria is the sister of notable ballerina Marjorie Tallchief.
She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, to Alexander and Ruth Porter Tallchief. Her great–grandfather, Peter Bigheart, negotiated for the Osages concerning oil revenues that made the Osage Nation wealthy. a father who was a chief in the Osage Nation and a Scots-Irish mother.
Of her childhood she wrote, “I was a good student and fit in at Sacred Heart (Catholic school). But in many ways, I was a typical Indian girl — shy, docile, introverted. I loved being outdoors and spent most of my time wandering around my big front yard, where there was an old swing and a garden. I’d also ramble around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass. Finding one made me shiver with excitement. Mostly, I longed to be in the pasture, running around where the horses were…”.
She enjoyed music, dancing and ballet. Her desire to pursue a career in the arts was a challenging dream for a Native American child in those days. The family moved to Beverly Hills, California, in 1933, where she was instructed in ballet by Ernest Belcher until she was twelve years old. Then she studied ballet with Bronislava Nijinska for five years. Madame Nijinska’s philosophy of discipline made sense to Tallchief. “When you sleep, sleep like a ballerina. Even on the street waiting for the bus, stand like ballerina.”
Tallchief left Los Angeles at the age of 17 and auditioned in New York City. She joined the [[Ballets Russes|Ballet Russe] and quickly became a featured soloist. After a tour in Canada during 1942, the company asked her to change her name to Maria Tallchieva. She declined to change her Osage name, but agreed to be called Maria Tallchief.
Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine wrote several of his most famous works for her. The two were married on August 16, 1946. The marriage ended in 1952, though they continued to work together as dancer and choreographer. They had no children. She was the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947 to 1960, where Balanchine was the principal choreographer. Her performance of Balanchine’s The Firebird in 1949 and their earlier collaboration at the Paris Opera elevated Maria Tallchief onto the world stage. She also originated the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker, in 1954.
Tallchief continued to dance with the New York City Ballet and with other groups until her retirement in 1965. She was director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet from 1973 to 1979. With her sister Marjorie, she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as its artistic director until 1987. From 1990 to present she has been artistic advisor to Von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet.
Maria married Elmourza Natirboff on October 4, 1952, but ended the marriage in 1954. She then married Henry “Buzz” Paschen, a Chicago builder, on June 3, 1956. This second marriage lasted until his death in 2003. They had one daughter, Elise Paschen (born 1959), an award-winning poet who served as the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America from 1988 to 2001, and currently teaches in the writing program at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Maria Tallchief’s younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, also had a successful career as a ballet dancer and was for several years “première danseuse étoile” of the Paris Opera Ballet. She worked with her sister Maria many times over the years.