A Tribute to Maria Tallchief

A Tribute to Ballet Great Maria Tallchief
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY
November 7, 2006

by Dale Brauner
copyright 2006 by Dale Brauner

It was a frightening moment. Maria Tallchief was introduced, but needed assistance walking across the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium stage. The 81-year-old legendary ballerina looked festive in a black sequined jacket and black pants. Once she made it to her seat, Tallchief put her right leg on a coffee table, clutched her pocketbook to her chest and leaned her head back. At that point, it seemed as if the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “A Tribute to Ballet Great Maria Tallchief” had come not a moment too soon.

Moderator Anna Kisselgoff, the chief dance critic emeritus of the New York Times, opened the proceedings with a question about “The Firebird,” on which George Balanchine created the title role on Tallchief. Tallchief, leaning back again and breathing heavily said, “Right. Balanchine commissioned the score from Stravinsky.” The feeling of impending doom spread through the sellout crowd. Surely Tallchief knew “The Firebird” was made in 1910 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Kisselgoff meekly queried, “Commissioned?” “Yes. The score was very popular. So Stravinsky made a “Firebird Suite.” This way he was able to receive royalties from it.”  Ahhh. We all sighed in relief.

As the evening progressed, Tallchief gained strength, with a big assist to fellow former New York City Ballet dancer Jacques D”Amboise, filling in for Tallchief biographer Larry Kaplan. Ballet Review editor Francis Mason provided historical perspective throughout the program.

The evening’s remarks by Tallchief were mostly nothing new to ballet aficionados. She explained that Balanchine was very concerned with port de bras: “You should turn your head as if you are receiving a kiss on your cheek from your father.” And how she wanted to have a long dramatic death as Eurydice in Balanchine’s “Orpheus,” but Stravinsky put an end to that: “You have four counts.” And how “The Firebird” was the first big hit of the fledgling New York City Ballet. Tallchief, a classically trained pianist, even revealed that former husband Balanchine, while he played the piano and was noted for his musicianship, was not so hot on the keyboards.

Much more interesting was the relationship between Tallchief and D’Amboise. Having joined the New York City Ballet at 15, D’Amboise said he was in awe of Tallchief’s abilities, watching them close up as a monster in “The Firebird” (he said Balanchine’s monster scene was much better than the one the master asked Jerome Robbins to devise for the 1970 revival) and a rock in “Orpheus.”

“I was getting ready for “Swan Lake” and I had white body powder everywhere,” Tallchief recalled. “And guess who was following me around? Jacques! I kept telling him ‘Now Jacques, don’t come near me, don’t come near me.’ Oh, well, I won’t tell the rest…”

“She’s being very nice,” D’Amboise said. “But I would go and hug her before we went on and wish her good luck. I’d get the white makeup on me but the worst was her tiara would stick in the design on my tunic. I was so clumsy; I would step on her toe shoes. I was like a big St. Bernard.”

“It was wonderful to have such a young, ardent admirer,” Tallchief said. “But you drove me crazy.”

They regaled the audience with a tale of Tallchief staying with some wealthy friends at Blue Mountain Lake, with D’Amboise hot on her trail. “I was driving up to Blue Mountain Lake,” Tallchief remembered. “You were on foot, hiking. I had to explain to my hosts that a friend of mine would be coming out of the woods. Sure enough one day, Jacques came out of the woods.”

“And I’ve loved you ever since,” he said.

D’Amboise paid tribute to the object of his affection. “We never had an international ballet star in American until Maria. What made it more magnificent was that she was a true Native American. There was Danilova, but she was Russian, and Alonso, but she was Cuban. Maria was our first star. And it was “Firebird” that launched her in that stratosphere.”

D’Amboise was not alone in his appreciation of Tallchief. She was the favorite of my mother, who saw her “Firebird” at Jacob’s Pillow — a performance she would compare to all others even 30 years later. And a lot more mothers (and fathers and so many more) who rose to give Tallchief — Balanchine’s Firebird, Swan Queen, Sugar Plum Fairy and Sylph — a sustained standing ovation. After Tallchief’s daughter, poet Elise Paschen, read one of her pieces dedicated to her mother (a film of Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky in “Scotch Symphony” was shown to begin this evening that came into being to honor the career of an Osage Indian), at first a few people moved towards the stage, then more. A chair was brought to the side for Tallchief to receive her visitors, which included former members of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre principal Gillian Murphy, and fans.  

Volume 4, No. 42
November 27, 2006

copyright ©2006 Dale Brauner



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