tallchiefTallchief as Eurydice in Balanchine’s “Orpheus,” c. 1948
The estate of George Platt Lynes/The George Balanchine Trust
New York City Ballet Archives

When Maria Tallchief arrived in Paris in 1947 to join her new husband, George Balanchine, the Paris Opera, where she was to perform several ballets, was in a state of nervous decline. Its wartime director, Serge Lifar, had been purged for his collaboration with the Nazi occupiers (theater workers loyal to the Resistance promised violence if he returned), and the company, like France itself, was searching for a way to restore its tarnished image in the eyes of the world.

She was barely 22 and as yet unknown, a half-Osage Indian child raised on an oil-rich reservation in Oklahoma and later in Los Angeles.

Performance conditions were difficult. The stage at the opera was treacherously raked, her ankle was still healing from a recent injury, she had little French and the press was angrily divided, pitting Balanchine against Lifar. To top it off, she had to learn a new part on short notice. 

The French were won over: “The daughter of an Indian Chief dances at the Opera!” one banner headline read. Audiences accustomed to a more refined French style saw something open and free in her dancing.

…the import of the moment was clear: Paris may have been liberated by French and American forces, but the Paris Opera was liberated by George Balanchine and Maria Tallchief.

– excerpted from The New York Times, Sunday Magazine/The Lives They Lived, 12/29/2013

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