She was the prima ballerina in George Balanchine’s original productions of Firebird, the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. The original Sugarplum Fairy, Maria Tallchief, died April 11 according to the New York Times. She was 88.
Not only was she a ballet legend, George Balanchine’s wife and founder of the Chicago City Ballet, but she was also Native American. Tallchief is one of five Native American prima ballerinas throughout history.
With hundreds of prima ballerinas throughout history, there are only five that are Native American. According to NewsOK, the five ballerinas are Maria Tallchief, her sister Marjorie, Yvonne Choteau, Rosella Hightower and Moscelyne Larkin.
Stephanie Fitzgerald, professor of Native American literature at the University of Kansas said that it is not a surprise there are so few Native American ballerinas. She said location and finances are key to having the opportunity for dance training.
“Living on a reservation, many families barely have money for food, let alone ballet lessons,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said that the Tallchiefs were of the Osage tribe and had access to oil, and therefore money. The family also moved to California from Oklahoma, so location was not a problem.
“Even if you do have access to lessons, not everyone has the talent to make it professionally,” said Fitzgerald.
Cynthia Crews, the ballet instructor at the Lawrence Arts Center, said that talent was no problem for the Tallchiefs and other Native American ballerinas.
Crews trained with Moscelyne Larkin at the Tulsa Ballet Theatre for many years.
“I always remember Larkin wearing this beautiful turquoise jewelry,” Crews said. “They were all very proud of their heritage.”
Crews had the opportunity to watch all five dancers together in the production of “Four Moons,” a ballet that celebrated Indian culture, in Oklahoma in 1967.
“It would have been an easy thing to sweep under the rug, but they always said they were from Oklahoma and they always said they were Native American,” Crews said.
Even today in Lawrence, Kan., Haskell Indian Nations University keeps the tradition of dance alive.
“Dance is a big part of our culture,” said Jessica Grundy, a junior at Haskell. She said the dancing mostly consists of traditional Native American dances, but other forms of dance have influence on the students’ lives as well.
“I know people who have taken ballet lessons, and I myself like hip hop, but collectively we do more powwows and stuff like that,” said Grundy.
Statistics from the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City show the population of students broken down according to ethnicity. Native Americans hold the lowest percentage.