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updated: 4/12/2013 1:27 PM

Ballet legend Maria Tallchief dies at 88

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  • This 1951 file photo shows ballet dancer Maria Tallchief of the New York City Ballet. Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago at the age of 88.

      This 1951 file photo shows ballet dancer Maria Tallchief of the New York City Ballet. Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago at the age of 88.
    Associated Press file photo

  • Former ballerina Maria Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago at the age of 88.

      Former ballerina Maria Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago at the age of 88.
    Associated Press file photo

 
Associated Press

Maria Tallchief, one of America's first great prima ballerinas who gave life to such works as "The Nutcracker," "Firebird," and other masterpieces from legendary choreographer George Balanchine, has died. She was 88.

Tallchief died Thursday in Chicago, her daughter Elise Paschen said Friday.

Tallchief danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1942 to 1947, but her career was most associated with the New York City Ballet, where she worked from 1948 to 1965. Balanchine, the Russian-born dance genius, was not only the company's director; in 1946, he became Tallchief's husband for some years.

She told Women's Wear Daily in 2003 that when she first worked with Balanchine she thought, "`I am seeing music. This is it!' I was a musician myself, and I thought, `I am in my place now.' I knew that that's the way I wanted to dance."

Tallchief was one of five Oklahoma natives of American Indian descent who rose to prominence in the ballet world from the 1940s through the 1960s. She retired in 1965, when she started teaching the next generation of dancers.

"My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage," Paschen said in a statement. "Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did."

Tallchief created roles in many of Balanchine's ballets, including "Orpheus," in 1948, and "Scotch Symphony," in 1952. She was the Sugar Plum Fairy in his original production of "The Nutcracker" in 1954.

In the 1970s, Tallchief served as artistic director of the Lyric Opera Ballet in Chicago. She later founded and was artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. In 1996, Tallchief became one of five artists to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for their lifelong contributions to American culture.

Tallchief was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief in 1925, on a reservation in Fairfax, Okla., a small town about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa. Visiting teachers gave her lessons, and her mother later moved the family to Los Angeles so that she and her sister could receive proper training.

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