Remembering Maria Tallchief, America's First Great Ballerina

WWD looks back on a 2003 interview with Tallchief, who died last week at the age of 88.

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Maria Tallchief at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1960.

Photo By Vic Casamento/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tallchief warmed to Mrs. Khrushchev, who revealed that apparently, her husband’s power wasn’t as absolute as perceived in the West. “Madame Khrushchev spoke English — she was just adorable. She told about how they had wanted a grandchild to study ballet at the Moscow Conservatory, and they wouldn’t take her because she was too fat!”

A decade or so later, after Tallchief had moved to Chicago, a friend of hers intervened to prevent a similar rejection from the School of American Ballet. “Fortunately, my best friend, Elise Reiman, was a teacher there and happened to see Caroline Kennedy come walking in. The teacher who was doing the audition almost said no. She said she was too heavy,” Tallchief recalls. “At that point, Caroline was a little — now, she’s like a bone, a toothpick, but at that time, she was, you know, she was a little…”

“Chubby,” Buzz Paschen pipes up from across the room.

“Yes, chubby then. And now, she’s like a sylph.”

Shortly after JFK’s assassination, Tallchief herself had started a class for Caroline. “Margot Fonteyn, who saw Jackie quite a lot, said to me, ‘Maria, would you be willing to start a class for Caroline Kennedy?’ I said, ‘I would do anything for that poor lady and her children.’ So we started the class and Caroline was in it, as was her cousin, Richard Burton’s daughter, Kate, and our daughter. You know, Jackie was wonderful to those children. Jackie never missed a class. And her first guest, she told me, at the White House was George Balanchine.”

Jackie never asked Tallchief to assess Caroline’s abilities. But true talent is as rare as Stravinsky’s rare Firebird. “I can remember watching a class at the School of American Ballet waiting for my rehearsal to start. Balanchine came along and he watched the class. I said, ‘This is amazing, George. There’s only one good girl in that class.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. What’s amazing is that there is one good girl in that class.’ And, of course, he was right.”

To wit, most of the children who will get the thrill of a lifetime when they perform in “The Nutcracker” will go on to other endeavors. As for her own opinion of the ballet, not known as a dancer’s favorite, Tallchief maintains “it was wonderful.” And she says, pragmatically of the lucrative crowd pleaser, “Nobody ever said this, but I think had it not been for ‘The Nutcracker’ that New York City Ballet would never have kept on.”

Tallchief and Balanchine remained close until his death in 1983. “My husband and I went to see George when he was so deathly ill,” she recalls. “We walked into the hospital and he was like this,” she makes small, nondescript movements with her fingers. “I said, ‘George, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you see, I am doing steps.’”

Yet this is not a woman who lives in the past. Although she can still “do the splits,” Tallchief now prefers stretching, yoga and Pilates to ballet, and works her public appearances in with the role of a proud mother and grandmother. Her daughter, Elise Paschen, an accomplished poet, holds degrees from Harvard and Oxford and founded the New York City Transit’s “Poetry in Motion” with Molly Peacock. She is now a professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and mother of two, including a four-year-old daughter whose pediatrician, Tallchief boasts, wants her enrolled in a program for gifted children at Northwestern University.

But life isn’t all high art and higher education. Two days after sitting for this interview, Tallchief returns to the hotel lobby for a brief photo session. “We were just watching the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show.’ We used to watch her all the time on ‘Hollywood Squares,’” the great ballerina says, expressing frustration over an ever-changing syndication schedule. “You always knew that if she was the center square, it was going to be a funny show.”

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