Maria Tallchief, widely considered the first major American prima ballerina, has died. Born Elizabeth Maria Tallchief in Fairfax, Oklahoma in 1925, her mother was Scots-Irish, but her father, Alexander Tallchief, was a chief in the Osage Nation, and her great-grandfather, Peter Bigheart, was crucial in negotiating oil revenues for the Osage tribe. At 17, Tallchief was in New York auditioning and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performed with the company from 1942-47. She quickly became the featured soloist. Her future husband chirographer Balanchine joined the Ballet Russe in 1944, and he and Tallchief married two years later. In 1947 she accompanied her husband to the Paris Opera where she appeared in his “Serenade,” “Apollon musagete” and “Baiser de la Fee.” Tallchief then came back in New York, and her husband Balanchine began creating what would become the New York City Ballet, and Tallchief became his leading ballerina. Tallchief created the leading roles in such major Balanchine ballets as “Symphonie Concertante,” “Orpheus,” “Firebird” (which became her signature role), “Scotch Symphony,” “Allegro Brilliante” and many others. She also starred in his versions of “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker.” But by 1951 Balanchine and Tallchief had annulled their marriage, though they stayed together as dancer and choreographer. In 1954, while on tour with Ballet Russe, Tallchief reportedly made $2,000 per week and was the highest-paid prima ballerina of that time. She subsequently met Chicago builder Henry “Buzz” Paschen, who she married in 1956. He died in 2004. Their daughter, Elise Maria Paschen, an acclaimed poet said of her mother: “Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did.” In addition to her daughter, Tallchief is survived by her son-in-law Stuart Brainerd and two grandchildren, Stephen and Alexandra. There will be a private family burial. Details about a public memorial service will be announced at a future date.
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