Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief, 2006
Mark Mainz/Getty Images
  • Dates: January 24, 1925 - April 11, 2013
  • Known for: first American and first Native American prima ballerina
  • Occupation: ballet dancer
  • Also known as: Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, Betty Marie Tall Chief

Maria Tallchief Biography

Maria Tallchief was born as Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief and changed her name later to Europeanize it for career reasons. Her father was of Osage descent, and the tribe was the beneficiary of oil rights. Her family was well off, and she had ballet and piano lessons from age three.

In 1933, pursuing opportunities for Maria and her sister, Marjorie, the Tall Chief family moved to California. Maria's mother wanted her daughters to become concert pianists, but they were more interested in dance. One of Maria's early teachers in California was Ernest Belcher, father of Marge Belcher Champion, wife and professional partner of Gower Champion. As a young teen, Maria, with her sister, studied with David Lichine and then with Bronislava Nijinska, who in 1940 cast the sisters in a ballet at the Hollywood Bowl that Nijinska had choreographed.

After high school, Maria Tallchief joined the Ballet Russe in New York City, where she was a soloist. It was during her five years at the Ballet Russe that she adopted the name Maria Tallchief. While her Native American background led to skepticism about her talent by other dancers, her performances changed their minds. Her performances impressed audiences and critics. When George Balanchine became ballet master at the Ballet Russe in 1944, he took her as his muse and protege, and Maria Tallchief found herself in increasingly prominent roles which were adapted to her strengths.

Maria Tallchief married Balanchine in 1946. When he went to Paris, she went as well and was the first American-born woman dancer to perform with the Paris Opera, in Paris and later with the Paris Opera Ballet in Moscow at the Bolshoi.

George Balanchine returned to the US and founded the New York City Ballet, and Maria Tallchief was its prima ballerina, the first time an American had held that title.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Tallchief was one of the most successful of ballet dancers. She was especially popular and successful as and in The Firebird beginning in 1949, and as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker beginning in 1954. She also appeared on television, made guest appearances with other companies, and appeared in Europe. Having been trained by David Lichine early in her dance education, she played Lichine's teacher, Anna Pavlova, in a 1953 movie.

Tallchief's marriage to Balanchine was a professional but not personal success. He began to feature Tanaquil Le Clerq in key roles, and he did not want to have children, while Maria did. The marriage was annulled in 1952. A brief second marriage failed in 1954. In 1955 and 1956, she was featured at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and in 1956 she married a Chicago construction executive, Henry Paschen. They had a child in 1959, she joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1960, touring America and the USSR.

In 1962, when the recently-defected Rudolf Nureyev debuted on American television, he chose Maria Tallchief as his partner. In 1966, Maria Tallchief retired from the stage, moving to Chicago.

Maria Tallchief returned to active participation in the dance world in the 1970s, forming a school connected with the Chicago Lyric Opera. When the school was the victim of budget cuts, Maria Tallchief founded her own ballet company, the Chicago City Ballet. Maria Tallchief shared duties as artistic director with Paul Mejia, and her sister Marjorie, also a retired dancer, became the school's director. When the school failed in the late 1980s, Maria Tallchief again became associated with the Lyric Opera.

A documentary, Maria Tallchief, was created by Sandy and Yasu Osawa, to air on PBS in 2007-2010.

Background, Family

  • Father: Alexander Joseph Tall Chief
  • Mother: Ruth Porter Tall Chief (Scots-Irish and Dutch ancestry)
  • Siblings: one brother; sister Marjorie Tall Chief (Tallchief)

Marriage, Children

  • husband: George Balanchine (married August 6, 1946, annulled 1952); choreographer and ballet master)
  • husband: Elmourza Natirboff (married 1954, divorced 1954; airline pilot)
  • husband: Henry D. Paschen (married June 3, 1956; construction executive)
    • daughter: Elise Maria Paschen (born 1959; poet, writing teacher)


  • piano and ballet lessons from age 3
  • Ernest Belcher, ballet teacher (father of Marge Champion)
  • David Lichine, student of Anna Pavlova
  • Madame (Bronislava) Nijinski, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky
  • Beverly Hills High School, graduated 1942
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Maria Tallchief." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Maria Tallchief. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Maria Tallchief." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).