En Pointe, Center Stage
by Jason Ryle

How did five Native American girls from Oklahoma rise to the top of the ballet world in NewYork and Paris in the 1950s?

"I was the first Sugarplum Fairy," laughs Maria Tallchief. "It will be wonderful to see all the others that came after me." It was February 2, 1954, in New York City when the legendary Osage ballerina premiered in George Balanchine's holiday classic, The Nutcracker. Fifty years later, on December 6, 2003, Tallchief will be the guest of honor at the School of American Ballet's Golden Jubilee Homecoming for more than 2,000 dancers who performed in the New York City Ballet's annual production.

"It is very exciting and gratifying for me to be a role model to them," she states. "I had a fantastic life and I saw the world through ballet." Renowned as one of the greatest American prima ballerinas, Tallchief was in fact one of five Native American women from Oklahoma who rose to prominence in the ballet world in the middle of the 20th century.

Along with Tallchief, her sister Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawneel Peoria), and Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee/ Cherokee) became celebrated stars in national and international ballet. How did five Native American girls from Oklahoma rise to the top of the ballet world in New York and Paris in the 1950s?

"They saw something magical," says Lili Cockerille Livingston. "They saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and were bitten by the bug." Livingston, a former ballet dancer and author of American Indian Ballerinas, refers to the ballet touring companies--the best-known of the lot being the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo--that served as their inspiration. Each of the five girls-- all from different small towns in Oklahoma, except sisters Maria and Marjorie--were first exposed to ballet through these touring companies that traveled to places such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Crammed onto buses and trains, Russian and American dancers crisscrossed the country, performing up to eight shows a week.

"I was mesmerized by the dancers I saw as a child," Maria says of the touring ballerinas. "My family thought I would be a pianist, as I started to play when I was three years old, but I loved to dance more than anything."

Ballet was only one dance form Maria and the other women were exposed to. Dance plays a central role in Native American cultures and was a fixture in the women's lives long before it became their primary passion. "They were surrounded by Native American dance at powwows since they were children," Livingston states. "Even though they were not traditional powwow dancers, their discipline and desire were born partly from the skillful dancers they saw as children."

"There is a wonderful rhythm to the powwow drum," Maria says. "To be a great ballerina you need an innate feeling for dance. The powwow dancers I saw as a child share this innate quality to dance naturally."

Livingston says their culture was the backbone of their strength and desire to excel as ballerinas. "They are all very proud of their heritage. It gave them a special sense of groundedness," she says. "The odds were against their achieving prominence, not because they were Native but because they did not live in a major city and because the odds are very high in the ballet world anyway.

"From the very start my Osage heritage was known," Maria says. "When you are in a company with Russian and European last names, the name 'Tallchief' really stands out." After her family moved to Los Angeles so that she and her sister could study ballet with Bronislava Nijinska, a Russian dancer, Maria joined the company that she first saw as a child. At 17, and at the advice of Nijinska, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942, while Marjorie joined the American Ballet Theatre. "Nijinska told my mother not to let us join the same company, as people might confuse the two of us."

The professional separation allowed the two sisters to shine. "A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own," Maria says. "Because it was so unusual to see a Native American in ballet, I had to fight not to be exploited. I wanted to be recognized for my dancing and not solely because I was Osage. Her determination to dance well, combined with her innate talent, enabled Maria to quickly become one of the company's featured soloists. After making a name for herself in classic ballets like Scheherezade and Gaite Parisienne, Maria performed Song of Norway by George Balanchine, a Russian choreographer. Balanchine fell in love with the young dancer and the two married in 1946. He would come to create some of his most famous works for her, including Firebird, her signature role.

"Meeting Balanchine was the most important thing in my life," Maria states. "He made me famous. I was at the right place at the right time and I knew it. I never questioned what he said as a choreographer. When you did as he instructed, it became magic on the stage." With her fame came a celebration of her Native American heritage. "I was seen as a 'true American' ballet dancer because I was Osage. People celebrated the fact I was Native American, for which I was extremely proud and happy."

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower declared the prima ballerina "Woman of the Year" while the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma honored her international achievements and her Native American ancestry. "I was on the cover of Newsweek and they wanted to honor my life as a private person and as a public dancer with an Osage name," Maria recalls. "I was given the name Wa-Xthe-Thomba, which in Osage means 'two standards' or 'woman of two worlds.'"

After eight years of marriage, Maria and Balanchine divorced in 1954. She rejoined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after years at the New York City Ballet and in 1956 became the highest-paid dancer at the time. Remarried, Maria took a leave of absence from ballet to become a mother in 1959. "I always wanted to have a child," she says. "Elise was born January 4, and I was back dancing that April."

After seven more years of acclaimed performances--including dancing with Rudolf Nureyev in the young Russian's American debut--Maria surprised the dance world by announcing her retirement in 1966, at her prime. Family was to come first. "Elise was about to start school and it was time to stay home, so I hung up my shoes," she says. "But ballet never left me and it is still good to me today.

In 1975 she became artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, and six years later she founded the Chicago City Ballet with her sister Marjorie. "Balanchine came to the opening performance, which was Firebird. He was sitting next to my daughter and he leaned over to her and said, 'You know, your mother was wonderful in this ballet.' He never said that to me at any time," Maria laughs. "He was a man of few words."

While Maria's career reached stellar proportions in America, her sister Marjorie, along with Rosella Hightower, found success in Europe; Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau spent much of their careers with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before each started ballet schools of their own, the Tulsa Ballet and the Oklahoma University Dance Department, respectively. "I was known as Marjorie's sister when I danced in Paris," Maria says. But Marjorie also left her mark in ballet history, becoming both the first American to assume the role of Premiere Danseuese Etoile of the Paris Opera and the first American to dance, with the Paris Opera Ballet, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

"It is impossible not to underestimate what Rosella has accomplished in the ballet world," Livingston states. "However, like the others, she feels she has not done anything extraordinary. It is not forced humility. For them, it was merely a job they loved and chose to excel in. They are the real deal"

Born in 1920, Rosella Hightower is the eldest of the five women. "I came to ballet relatively later than most girls," she says. "But I knew what I wanted. I wanted to dance." In 1955, at the height of her popularity, Hightower's performance in Piege de Lumiere resulted in a 15 minute standing ovation. "It was incredible," she says. Hightower opened a dance school in 1961 in the French Mediterranean port city of Cannes, where she lives today. "The Ecole Superieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower is one of the preeminent dance schools in Europe," says Livingston.

The legacy of the five ballet pioneers lives on in the hearts of Native American ballet dancers today. A professional dancer for 20 years, Jimmy Locklear (Lumbee), now retired from dance and currently the secretary for public programs at the National Museum of the American Indian, danced three seasons at the Chicago City Ballet and the Lyric Opera under Maria Tallchief. "She is a remarkable dancer, and all five women were an inspiration," he says.

For Santee Smith (Mohawk), a dancer and choreographer from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Maria was someone to look up to. Smith's parents, potters Steve and Leigh Smith (Mohawk), were worried that their daughter did not have Native role models at the National Ballet School of Canada where she was a student. "They drove me down to Chicago when I was teenager to look for Maria Tallchief," Smith recalls. "She was an inspiration to me." Smith, now a contemporary dancer, incorporates traditional Mohawk cultural elements into her modern works. "I base my work on the essence, power, and beauty of our traditions and tie that to the contemporary stage," she says.

Jock Soto (Navajo), a dancer at the New York City Ballet since 1981 and teacher at its School of American Ballet, says, "Maria Tallchief is still talked about today. She is a legend in ballet. I wish there were not so many years between her and me; it would be wonderful to have more Native Americans in ballet."

As a child, Soto began dancing as a hoop dancer, a challenging Native American dance form that uses multiple hoops, which he learned from his mother, Josephine Towne (Navajo). "Hoop dancing helped me with ballet in that it introduced me to the importance of following the rhythm of the music," he says. "Ballet, like Native American powwow music, is all about rhythm."

A documentary is in the works about Soto's life and his accomplishments. "It is still an anomaly in the ballet world to have a successful Native American dancer," he says. "Filmmakers are interested in how a Native dancer got this far. Ballet isn't something that most Native American children would be drawn to, because of its apparent elitist associations. But ballet is for everyone, as these five women have shown."

Locklear agrees. "We are all dancers, and the dance we dance is life."

Jason Ryle (Saulteaux) is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ont.

from National Museum of American Indian, Winter 2003

© 2003 Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian