Maria Tallchief dead at 88

April 12, 2013
Chicago Tribune
John Anderson and Sid Smith

Content

Hailed for her "thrilling power of momentum," Maria Tallchief, was one of the 20th century's greatest ballerinas, key player in the art of George Balanchine and later a force in the history of Chicago dance.

Tallchief, a longtime Chicagoan, died Thursday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to family members. She was 88. No cause of death was released.

Though not alone, Tallchief helped pioneer what became a late 20th century and ongoing revival in dance here. It's arguable her work seeking to establish a permanent ballet company in Chicago eventually led to our burgeoning dance scene today as well as the Joffrey Ballet's relocation here in the 1990s. The Joffrey, in fact, first considered merging with Ballet Chicago, which arose directly in the wake of Tallchief's troupe.

Crucial instructors who've influenced hordes of ballet students here also worked with her, among them Homer Bryant, Patti Eylar and Sherry Moray.

"My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage," her daughter, Elise Paschen, an award-winning poet, said in a statement. "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."

"She was truly legendary, not only as one of the wives of Balanchine, but an extraordinary expert on multiple planes of the art," said Kenneth von Heidecke, a Tallchief protege and head of Von Heidecke's Chicago Festival Ballet. "She brought to us a vast treasure of knowledge and expertise, even including the laws of physics that determined what we did and the spiritual aspects of our work."

She was director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago for most of the 1970s, and, in 1981, debuted the Chicago City Ballet and was as co-artistic director until its 1987 demise.

"She was a remarkable woman and a consummate professional," said William Mason, director emeritus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "She realized who and what she was, but she didn't flaunt it. She was unpretentious."

"She always spoke her mind, she didn't mince words and it would often startle people," von Heidecke said. "It gave her the illusion of being a diva, but it was really a keen sense of honesty."

Earlier, she was married to Balanchine for six years and, during the late 1940s and early '50s, was his star in major early works of the New York City Ballet. She created roles in his "Firebird" (1949), "Pas de Dix" (1955) and his exuberant "Allegro Brillante" (1956), a 13-minute masterpiece.

In her 1997 autobiography, co-authored with Larry Kaplan, she wrote wryly of their marriage: "Passion and romance didn't play a big role.... We saved our emotion for the classroom. And despite his reputation as a much married man obsessed with ballerinas, George was no Don Juan."

As a young dancer, she had studied with Bronislava Nijinksa and danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1952, she appeared briefly as legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in the film "Million Dollar Mermaid," starring Esther Williams. A passionate ballet enthusiast to the end, in later years she was as artistic advisor to von Heidecke's troupe.

She had her struggles, including her third husband Henry D. Paschen Jr.'s brief stint in jail for tax evasion. But through it all she never lost her imposing, elegant bearing or sharp wit.

"There's a price to be paid for doing serious dance," she told the Tribune in a 1987 interview. "As my druggist said the other day, 'You're now paying for all those years.' But he said, 'It was worth it, wasn't it?' And I said, 'It certainly was.'"

Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born on Jan. 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Okla., a small town in Indian reservation country, a territory covering hundreds of miles of Osage tribal lands, rich with oil. Her mother had moved west from Kansas to become the second wife of her father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, a widower with three children.

The Tall Chiefs were a family with noble traditions. Her grandfather, Chief Big Heart, had served as a negotiator for the tribe's treaties with the United States government. Her paternal grandmother, Eliza, later led her awed granddaughter, known then as Betty Marie, to watch Osage ceremonial dances, grand spectacles of movement, fervor and deep cultural meaning.

Her father turned his share of the Osage oil millions into profitable real-estate ventures. He owned the local movie theater, pool hall and ice-cream stand. From her mother, Tall Chief acquired a strong sense of discipline and a love of learning.

She was playing the piano at 3. At 4, she was taking ballet lessons from a Tulsa teacher who drove to Fairfax twice a week. At 5, to the horror of her later ballet masters, she put on toes shoes and twirled round and round with her sister, Marjorie, younger by 21 months, until she was dizzy.

When Betty Marie was 8, the Tall Chief family set out for California. Besides sunshine and year-round golf, which father Tall Chief liked, the state had good ballet schools.

Later, she studied with Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the legendary Nijinsky. "Madame spoke no English, but you could feel her greatness," Tallchief later said. "She would mumble something, and her husband would say, 'You are like spaghetti. You must pull, pull.' She was kind, but very intense."