'First American Ballet Star' Soared To Fame With 'Firebird'

One of America's first great prima ballerinas has died. Maria Tallchief brought life to The Nutcracker and Firebird at the New York City Ballet. She died Thursday at the age of 88. NPR's Joel Rose has this remembrance.

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The dancer who brought "Firebird" and "The Nutcracker" to life at the New York City Ballet died this week. Maria Tallchief was one of America's great prima ballerinas. NPR's Joel Rose has this remembrance.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Maria Tallchief soared to fame in 1949 when she danced the lead role in Stravinsky's "Firebird" in a production choreographed by George Balanchine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MARIA TALLCHIEF: He was a poet. And he taught us how to react and to become this poetry.

ROSE: In an interview years later for The George Balanchine Trust, Tallchief talked about the moment the curtain fell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TALLCHIEF: The City Center sounded like a stadium after a football game after somebody's made a touchdown, screaming, yells of bravo, this and that, you know.

ROSE: Tallchief was also married to Balanchine for several years during their long collaboration at the New York City Ballet. Before Maria Tallchief, it was routine for American dancers to change their names to make them sound Russian. Tallchief never did.

JORDAN LEVIN: She was the first American ballet star.

ROSE: Jordan Levin is the dance critic for The Miami Herald.

LEVIN: "Firebird" was New York City Ballet's first hit. And it was a hit largely because of Maria Tallchief. Everybody had to go see this amazing, gorgeous creature.

ROSE: Maria Tallchief was born in Oklahoma. Her father was an Osage Indian whose family struck it rich in the oil business. She trained in Los Angeles but made her mark in New York. Allegra Kent was a younger ballerina who watched Tallchief dance at the New York City Ballet.

ALLEGRA KENT: She was extraordinary. Her musicality, her musical phrasing, it was so subtle. Even a very simple step had an unusual quality to it.

ROSE: Maria Tallchief retired from the stage in the 1960s. She married prominent Chicago developer Henry Paschen and led several ballet companies in Chicago through the 1970s and 80s.

ELISE PASCHEN: She remembered every part that she danced to the minute detail.

ROSE: Elise Paschen is Tallchief's daughter. She remembers watching her mother demonstrate Balanchine's techniques for younger generations of dancers.

PASCHEN: You know, she would be in her street clothes and her high heels, and she would embody the Balanchine technique and movement and grace. You could just feel the "Firebird," you know, in her soul and in her spirit and her body, even though she was probably in her 50's at that point.

ROSE: Maria Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago. She was 88 years old. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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