This Day In History: November 27

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In a star-making performance, ballerina Maria Tallchief debuts in the New York City Ballet's production of Firebird on November 27, 1949. During her distinguished career, Tallchief collaborated with famed choreographer George Balanchine and became the first-ever American prima ballerina.

Maria Tallchief was born in 1925 on the Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma, to a Native American father and Scotch-Irish mother. As a child, she studied with celebrated ballerina Bronslava Nijinska, and moved to New York City at age seventeen to pursue a career in dance. There she met the choreographer George Balanchine, and became a founding member of his New York City Ballet. Tallchief and Balanchine were married from 1946 to 1952.

Tallchief's performance in Firebird introduced her as one of the most impressive ballerinas of her time. She had a strong, sleek and athletic style of dance, which made difficult choreography appear effortless. Firebird was originally commissioned from composer Igor Stravinsky for the famous Ballets Russes in 1910. Balanchine adapted it for the New York stage, with new choreography and sets and costumes by Russian artist Marc Chagall. John Martin, the New York Times dance critic, wrote of Firebird that Balanchine “has asked her [Tallchief] to do everything except spin on her head, and she does it with complete and incomparable brilliance.”

Over her career, Tallchief originated other iconic roles in Balanchine ballets, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker and the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. She achieved the status of prima ballerina, the lead female dancer in a ballet company, at a time when ballet in America was still dominated by European and Russian dancers. In 1955, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and earned the highest salary of any ballerina in history. 

After her retirement from the stage, Tallchief moved to Chicago, where she was appointed ballet director of the Lyric Opera and founded the Chicago City Ballet. In recognition of her talent and achievements in ballet, Tallchief received numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors. The state of Oklahoma created Maria Tallchief Day on June 29, 1953, and the Osage tribe named her Princess Wa-Xthe-Thonba, Woman of Two Standards. Maria Tallchief died in Chicago in 2013 at age 88.