Ex-Ballet Star Maria Tallchief Warns Her Young Students: Expect to Wait and Weep
The turning point for Maria Tallchief came in 1949 when her choreographer and then husband George Balanchine created her greatest role, in The Firebird. As one dance critic wrote, Tallchief "was truly a flaming figure—she preened, she shimmered, she gloried in speed and airy freedom." Overnight, America had its first native-born prima ballerina assoluta.
Today, at 54, Maria Tallchief is back at the practice barre—the body still lithe, the face striking, the eyes ablaze. She spends six to eight hours a day in a small mirrored studio high above Chicago's skyline, guiding 16 young male and female dancers through the same painful regimen of stretching and sweating that she once followed. "Boys, this is classical ballet, point your toes," she admonishes. "Girls, pull in those tummies. You look like old ladies." Her voice softens. "Remember, you will do a lot of standing in the wings and weeping to become a dancer."
For the past six years Tallchief has served as director of Chicago's Lyric Opera Ballet and its school. At first her job was to teach the singers "how to enter and exit gracefully. It just evolved that many of the operas needed ballet." The company began to attract students from all over the Midwest. They perform in old people's homes, schools, hospitals, "anywhere to get the experience," Maria notes. Balanchine, director of the New York City Ballet, recently hired three of his ex-wife's prize students. "Now that's a supreme compliment," she smiles.
Maria became Balanchine's third wife in 1946 when she was only 21 and he was 42. It was "a great working relationship," but he would not give his ballerina the one thing she desperately wanted: a child. He argued that the world needed her more as a dancer than as a mother. "I realize now I was just too young to be married to a genius," Maria explains today. The marriage was annulled after five years, but she continued to dance for him.
In her prime, Tallchief was reportedly the highest-paid dancer in the world—earning some $2,000 a week. So it came as a surprise when she retired in 1965. "There were no challenges left to me," she claimed then. One key reason lay with her ex-husband's choice of younger dancers for roles that had once been hers. "My dignity was imperiled," she now admits.
Born Elizabeth Maria Tallchief on an Oklahoma Indian reservation (her father was an Osage chief, her mother a Kansas-born farm girl), she made her local dancing debut at age 6. When she was 9, the Tallchief family moved to Los Angeles so she and her sister, Marjorie, could concentrate on their dancing. The girls studied with Bronislava Nijinsky, sister of the legendary dancer, and Maria made her first public appearance with Cyd Charisse in the Hollywood Bowl in 1940. After high school, she went to New York and landed a spot in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Balanchine discovered her. (Marjorie Tallchief, after a distinguished career in Europe, now heads her own ballet school in Dallas.)
In 1954 Maria met Chicago contractor Henry "Buzzy" Paschen ("I was invited to the yacht club, and here was this handsome sailor," she recalls). After a year of long-distance telephone calls, they were married. She continued to dance in New York, but the commute exacted a severe physical and emotional toll. "I wasn't the easiest person to live with in those days," allows Maria. "Thank God I had such an even-tempered husband." They have a daughter, Elise, who is a junior at Harvard.
The Paschens live in an elegant 11-room co-op overlooking Lake Michigan. Each morning Maria does an hour of exercise ("Training is everything—it's all work and muscle memory"), looking ahead to the day when she will start her own school and bring in young Indians for dance classes. "I remember when I first realized what dancing was—when I first saw the fleetness of it. That's what I'm trying to pass on."
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