NEW YORK - Most American children get their first exposure to ballet from holiday performances of the fantasy "The Nutcracker." But very few will know how deeply the production is linked to a shy Osage girl who became one of America's first international star ballerinas.
The connection came into the spotlight recently in a gala New York City Ballet celebration of 50 years of its "Nutcracker" production. The performance was scheduled to feature Maria Tallchief, the first American to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy, as guest of honor.
A Nor'easter kept Tallchief from making the flight from her home in Chicago, but the occasion revived memories of her crucial role in making ballet an American art form. In the late '40s, Tallchief was the star performer and wife of the great George Balanchine, whose influence still pervades American ballet. It was their collaboration that transformed his struggling dance troupe into a New York City, and national institution.
"She it was who took the New York City Ballet over the top," wrote the veteran dance critic Francis Mason in the collection of reminiscences "I Remember Balanchine." The occasion was the Nov. 27, 1949 premiere of Balanchine's choreography of Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird," a triumph that is still a New York legend.
After Tallchief's performance, with athletic leaps and astonishing rapidity of movement, wrote Mason, "The cheering was so loud, it was as if we were in a football stadium instead of a theater. A man standing behind me in the mezzanine yelled at the top of his lungs over and over, 'Tallchief! Tallchief! Tallchief!' When Maria Tallchief took her first solo bow, I thought the roof would cave in."
From that point, wrote Mason, the New York City Ballet, "never looked back."
Her presence carried the troupe through the early '50s. In the 1954 premiere of Balanchine's "Nutcracker," the critic Walter Terry wrote, "Maria Tallchief, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, is herself a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with her radiance of being."
It was a long way to this international praise from Tallchief's birth Jan. 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Okla., on the Osage territory The path was fueled, literally, by the discovery of oil on Osage land, which made her father's generation wealthy. But Tallchief, called Betty Marie in her youth, has bittersweet memories of the time.
Her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, was full-blood Osage and grandson of tribal leaders. Her mother Ruth, his second wife, was Scots-Irish from Kansas.
"In many ways, I was a typical Indian girl," Tallchief wrote, " - shy, docile, introverted."
She wrote in her autobiography of visits to secret pow wows, held in remote corners of the reservation at a time the government banned Indian ceremonies. She also remembered a cousin, orphaned when her family was murdered for their head rights. During the early '20s, in a period called the Osage Reign of Terror, she wrote, "villainous white men married into Osage families, then poisoned their wives or shot them in order to get their money."
Although this terror came to an end shortly after her birth, when the FBI brought about the conviction of its perpetrators, her youth was also disrupted by her beloved father's occasional alcoholic rampages. Her mother had already discovered she had perfect pitch and was sending her and her sister Marjorie to piano and ballet classes. In 1933, Ruth persuaded her husband to relocate the family to Los Angeles, seeking escape from wasted lives and better training for her daughters.
The daughters had good luck with their education, winding up in the Beverly Hills school system and the ballet classes of the famous Russian teacher Bronislava Najinska. Tallchief danced in a production opposite Cyd Charisse, later the famous movie star. At 18, she began to make a living with a small part in a Judy Garland movie. Then her ballet contacts began to pay off. She went to New York to audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and her career was under way.
As a soloist in several of the ballet's European productions, including Balanchine's "Serenade," Tallchief captivated the choreographer, already an unsung genius. They married in 1946, and Balanchine brought her to New York to join his Ballet Society, later to become the New York City Ballet.
Balanchine saw the marriage as a connection with his new country and reveled in his alliance with the first Americans. His biographer wrote that shortly after their marriage he took a train across country to join her in Los Angeles and was thrilled to pass a reservation while crossing Oklahoma. "Look, those are my new relatives!" he told a Russian companion and for the next few hours recounted Indian lore, speaking in Russian.
Balanchine was famous for marrying stars from his corps de ballet, and then leaving them for younger blood. His marriage with Maria ended in the mid-'50s, when she wanted to have children and Balanchine refused. She rejoined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for several years, receiving the highest salary then paid a dancer. In 1956 she married a Chicago businessman and became a mother shortly after.
After retiring from dancing in 1965, she returned to Chicago, where she became artistic director and teacher of the Chicago Lyric Opera ballet. In 1981, she founded the Chicago City Ballet.
National honors have celebrated her contribution to the success of American ballet, but the greatest tribute might well be the thousands of young dancers, Indian and non-Indian alike, who have looked to her as their inspiration.