Maria Tallchief signed on to do a cameo as legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1952 Busby Berkeley-Esther Williams swimsical Million Dollar Mermaid, then started to worry about authenticity. Her boss and first husband, New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine (another Russian), sent her to Pavlova’s onetime understudy, Muriel Stuart, to learn Pavlova’s style and mannerisms. Tallchief perfected the moves, only to find that though the script called for her to dance The Dying Swan, Hollywood wanted her to “liven it up” with the pyrotechnic choreography Balanchine had created for Tallchief as the Firebird, the role that confirmed her as America’s first homegrown ballet superstar. That wouldn’t be very accurate, she protested. “No one’ll know,” they assured her, their finger on the pulse of their audience. When the film came out she went to Radio City to see it: “There I was on the giant screen doing the Firebird variation in the middle of The Dying Swan.” The dance had been cut to a few seconds and “Just when I was about to hit the difficult finish, the camera cut to a close-up of Esther Williams.” Tallchief’s story, the tale of a girl born on an oil-rich Oklahoma Indian reservation who grew up to be the grande dame of American ballet (and founder of the Chicago City Ballet), is told in her 1997 autobiography, Maria Tallchief, and a 1999 children’s book, Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, written with Rosemary Wells and nicely illustrated by Gary Kelley. She’ll sign and read from them at 1 on Sunday, December 10, at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 2600 Central Park in Evanston. Suggested admission to the museum is $5, $2.50 for children, students, and seniors. Call 847-475-1030.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.