If You Work For Big Dairy Please Don’t Listen To This (The Maria Tallchief Episode with Alyssa Limperis)
On this episode, we are joined by the hilarious, the athletic, the Greek by blood but not by accent, stand-up comedian and actress Alyssa Limperis! And today, I’m going to tell her the story of one of the most legendary people in the arts: Maria Tallchief – a Native American woman who became America’s FIRST! prima ballerina.
Next time on FIRST! – make sure to catch me and Ramy Youssef as we talk about Omar Sharif – the FIRST! Arab Actor to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Kareem Rahma, Alyssa Limperis
Alyssa Limperis 00:00
We’re in the studio. They heard us. Oh, good. I think let’s keep that in.
Kareem Rahma 01:28
Alright, so we’re gonna do this little pod. Pod pod pod. Yeah. So I’m gonna start it off by showing you a photo. Okay. Tell me if you know who this person is.
Alyssa Limperis 01:38
It’s a picture of me from my window from like, really far away. Anyway, I lived in New York.
Kareem Rahma 01:46
Do you know who this is?
Alyssa Limperis 01:47
Oh, no. But is she a stunning ballerina?
Kareem Rahma 01:50
She is a ballerina. That’s really good.
Alyssa Limperis 01:55
Thank you. But also, what else could she be? Look at the headpiece.
Kareem Rahma 02:01
She could be in an institution. How do you know she was ballerina?
Alyssa Limperis 02:05
They’re like feathers on her head. Oh, and I’m like, do with time you see feathers on the head. This is yeah, I love ballerina.
Kareem Rahma 02:11
I love the show. Because somehow, all of the comedians are a lot smarter. Alright, so that is Maria Tallchief, who happens to be America’s first prima ballerina. Wow, she also happens to be Native American. Wow. So not only does that make her America’s first prima ballerina, but it also makes her America’s first Native American prima ballerina. So I’m going to tell you the whole story.
Alyssa Limperis 02:42
Okay, great. Before you do that, you want to know my belly experience?
Kareem Rahma 02:44
I’d love to hear about your experience.
Alyssa Limperis 02:46
So we had to do ballet if you took any other dance classes, so I like love tap and acro, but we had to do ballet. And I got sent to my own bar because I talked too much. The chatter bars what they called me because anytime I would be at a party I was so bored with the ballet.
Kareem Rahma 03:03
Alyssa chatterbot. It was like the equivalent of the dunce cap. They put you on the corner. Wait, how long did you do ballot for a while?
Alyssa Limperis 03:10
Maybe like seven years?
Kareem Rahma 03:15
I’m very excited. So a lot of the words you can correct me because I always thought it was called […], sent you to the […]
Alyssa Limperis 03:25
Yeah. Well, that kind of sounds like how you would because seems French?
Kareem Rahma 03:28
Yeah. All right. All right. I gotta get on with the show list. Here we go. What’s up, y’all? I’m Kareem Rahma and welcome to FIRST. A funny show about spectacular people who had a serious impact on society and culture because they were first. On this episode we are joined by the hilarious, the athletic the Greek by blood, but not by accident. stand-up comedian and actress Alyssa Limperis. Today I’m going to tell Alyssa the story of one of the most legendary people in the arts. Maria Tallchief, a Native American woman who became America’s first prima ballerina. Alyssa, I had a question for you. Do you know what a prima ballerina is?
Alyssa Limperis 04:19
Actually, I don’t know. Is it different than a ballerina?
Kareem Rahma 04:23
Yeah, it’s the chief female dancer in the ballet or a ballet […], like the lead. It’s like the quarterback.
Alyssa Limperis 04:33
Now you talking my language quarterback. Okay, man. Okay, sorry. Now you got to put into context from I’m from Massachusetts, all quarterback. Football.
Kareem Rahma 04:44
I literally don’t speak football though.
Alyssa Limperis 04:46
Of course. Look at you. You should see him right now. You got like five buttons on button. I can’t believe you live in LA. You think you’re fresh out of Venice?
Kareem Rahma 04:53
I’d like to think of it as a Mediterranean. I gotta get off the story. Ponche is a ballet move in which a dancer raises their back leg higher than their head. To pull it off, you need perfect balance, strength, and timing. Can you imagine doing that? Now imagine doing it in a motion spinning sandwiched between a series of other equally difficult poses, all to the rhythm of an epic orchestra symphony. That was just a regular Friday night for my Maria Tallchief. .
Alyssa Limperis 05:26
Oh, wow. Just a regular Friday night. That’s when you go is what we do art. It’s like she’s lifting her back leg over her head. If that was something that any of us in our comedy community could do, we would stop there. That would be the trick.
Kareem Rahma 05:50
All right. All right. Ballet is a disciplined art form that portrays itself as effortless and musical. Few have ever achieved the level of artistry and mastery that Maria Tallchief had, she was a ghostly presence on the stage. Her arms moved elegantly and elastically and her feet flooded so quickly that they look like hummingbird wings. Maria’s passion was electric and her technical ability paved an unforgettable career that took her from the Oklahoma Indian reservation where she was born to a worldwide startup. She was crucial to George Balanchine, the iconic choreographer who in 1946, founded the New York City Ballet. The combination of balancing is impossible choreography and tall chiefs thirst for perfection, change the world of dance forever. To give you a sense of our impact, the Nutcracker was an obscure ballet until Tallchief made it the annual Christmas classic that it is today. And she was the first American to perform in Moscow’s isn’t decadent Bolshoi Theatre. One time when I was in high school, I had to read out loud, do you remember popcorn? It would be like, I’m gonna read this paragraph and then I’d say popcorn Alyssa.
Alyssa Limperis 07:09
So you always had to be on guard.
Kareem Rahma 07:10
Add there was a word in there. It’s spelt Epitome. Oh, but I pronounced it epi-tome. And everyone lost, and I was like, what kind of seventh graders are so smart?
Alyssa Limperis 07:29
Well, yeah, it’s not like you didn’t know like a cool word. Yeah, but you knew Bolshoi like your lessons of Epitome have paid off you look things I’ve learned. Never again.
Kareem Rahma 07:43
I ain’t gonna be embarrassed. Not in this house. Because of her, America became a ballet powerhouse, a distinction that survives to this day. In a career that flourished from the 1940s to the 1960s. She broke ethnic and national barriers in a world dominated by Russian and European dancers. And she stole America’s heart in the process, changing our relationship with ballet forever.
Alyssa Limperis 08:18
Wow, she really did. I mean, the Nutcracker when you think about what you think of the nutcracker. Because it was there?
Kareem Rahma 08:25
It was probably like you know, like kicking of the feet a little bit of flagger in here. She was like looking at me Ponche absolutely as well. Let me get to that, please. Of course. We have a lot of stuff to talk. So the story starts like this. Elizabeth Murray Tallchief was born in 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma, a small town inside the Native American Osage tribal land reservation. The Osage tribe was unique in that they owned the land they lived on, which led to a huge windfall after they discovered oil deposits in the reservation. The Tallchief’s were a big deal and her grandfather, Chief big heart negotiated the tribes treaties with the United States Government regarding these lucrative oil fields, her grandfather turned the shares of the Osage millions into profitable real estate ventures, which is how the family came to own a local movie theater, the pool hall and an ice cream stand.
Alyssa Limperis 09:34
What didn’t they do? They had oil. They had ice cream. They had a pool. They had Ballet, the Nutcracker. I mean this this family seems incredible.
Kareem Rahma 09:41
Also, if I had multi-millions I would definitely put a lot of ice cream stand up. He’s giving the people what they want, which is dairy, sweet dairy, and back then. There was no oat milk. Almond milk.
Alyssa Limperis 09:56
This was pure from the cow.
Kareem Rahma 10:21
[…] Big Milk. Like the Damn, he’s not a guy. It’s like the Dairy Association of Milkers. They’re like big tobacco. I mean, because milk is not even good for you. Like, okay, think about those fucking posters. MF’s had a milk mustache. Drinking a glass of milk at lunch.
Alyssa Limperis 10:56
At height of their career two these were like our heroes.
Kareem Rahma 11:03
Think about how crazy that is.
Alyssa Limperis 11:05
I hated milk. I hated milk and I always had to drink it.
Kareem Rahma 11:13
Your drink was a school lunch and a milk.
Alyssa Limperis 11:16
Oh my God. You’re so right. And now big milk is angry and they’re coming for over recall what’s wrong with the oat what’s possibly be wrong with the oat? Oats live outside, that’s where they live.
Kareem Rahma 11:30
Okay, let me get back to the thing that we’re doing here. Her Father Alexander Joseph Tallchief was six foot two and famously handsome. How excited are you right now to learn more about the story.
Alyssa Limperis 11:43
I want to hear about his hot […].
Kareem Rahma 11:47
His name is Alexander Joseph Tallchief, and he was 6’2 and famously handsome. That’s what I got for you. He had three kids with his first wife, a German immigrant, but he fell back in love. Pretty soon after the sister of the family’s housekeeper, Ruth, visited from Kansas and neither of them could resist each other. They married and had two more kids together. Betty Marie, aka Maria Tallchief. And her younger sister Marjorie. It’s always the housekeeper.
Alyssa Limperis 12:20
It’s always the housekeeper. They come to help out around the house. But in fact, they hurt. Wow, I love to like they simply couldn’t resist. It’s kind of reading like a romance now, this hot 6’2 man. Unfortunately, when Ruth came, they simply couldn’t resist each other.
Kareem Rahma 12:39
What are you supposed to do, he’s 6’2 and he’s hot. It’s not his fault. So here’s the deal. Maria’s mother was Scottish Irish and had always dreamed of becoming a farmer but could never afford dance or take music lessons for herself. According to her, Maria was a fussy child who could never sit still. She wanted to give her daughters the opportunity she never had and enrolled Maria in ballet and piano classes when she was very young. And Maria’s words. I remember when I was just three years old, my mother would sit me down on her old piano bench and tell me to try to play a song I heard at the tribal dance ceremony. She tried to anything that would keep me busy. I believe that is how I learned to be so creative.
Alyssa Limperis 13:20
Wow. We were guzzling milk from our parents were sitting at the dinner table. Just suck down a glass of hot milk. They were three years old at the piano.
Kareem Rahma 13:32
I was like, Mom, I wanna learn how to draw. She’s like, shut the fuck up.
Alyssa Limperis 13:36
Did you see Michael Jordan? That’s how you become an athlete. You goat milk.
Kareem Rahma 13:41
I don’t want to be an athlete. I want to be a guy that draws cartoons. Just like go play basketball and drink because God damn milk. Shout out mom, great mom. That was a fake. At age four, she started taking ballet lessons. And at five she put on toe shoes and twirl around with Marjorie until they were dizzy. The teacher put Maria on planes. Do you know that is? Basically, that’s when you’re like normal ballet. You’re just on flat feet and you go up on your tippy toes. But then point is you go on your it’s like there’s a block underneath and you go on your actual toes. So it’s very hard and difficult. And that’s when you see in movies where people’s feet get really chopped up. That’s I never went on point for example.
Alyssa Limperis 14:24
I like that they call it on point. That’s on point. Okay, in her words, she was a wretched instructor who never taught the basics, and it’s a miracle I wasn’t permanently harmed. It sounds like she just threw the shoes on him said get on point. When she started school she could already read so they let her skip two grades. She was by far the youngest person in her grade, but she didn’t have time for friends anyways, between school ballet and piano lessons. She didn’t have time for a social life instead in her downtime. She’d wander around her family’s huge yard digging up arrow heads. I was so bored as a kid; everyone was like playing sports or whatever. And I was like, I’m gonna mow people’s lawns.
Alyssa Limperis 15:12
I mean, I did remember being very excited to get a job and have homework. We probably just were anxious or depressed. And as a kid, if you have those things play time is a little bit less exciting.
Kareem Rahma 15:21
What was your first job?
Alyssa Limperis 15:22
I worked at Ben and Jerry’s on the east side of Providence. I worked in the factory. I was pinting. Well, actually. Then I went to college in Vermont, which is like the home of Ben and Jerry’s. And I worked at a dairy farm one summer where I was bottling drinkable yogurt.
Kareem Rahma 15:41
Why are you working for big milk? I had you on the show. Because I thought that you were a good person. Turns out you’re getting that monthly check from big milk.
Alyssa Limperis 15:54
Yogurts really good for you. It’s good for your growing bones. And yeah, I wouldn’t call it a complete dinner without drinkable. Although I will say my job was like I consulted for them. I was in college. Yeah, buddy. I was going to businesses, telling them who they should fire. Good for you and your lawn mowing business. I laid off 300 dairy workers in Vermont
Kareem Rahma 16:30
Okay, everyone, we’re having today’s meeting because I gotta let you go. I have to get back to that episode and I’m so hungry. So Maria was very connected to her Osage heritage, her grandmother letter and her younger sister Marjorie to watch Osage ceremonial dances. The girls became known and had obvious talent. They delighted crowds when they performed at area rodeos and local events. But soon, they outgrew Oklahoma. And Maria’s mother knew that to give her daughters a real shot at becoming professional performers. They needed to be in Los Angeles. Their father was down because he was a big golfer. And he thought the California weather would allow him to play more golf.
Alyssa Limperis 19:12
Now my daughter’s lives, not sold. My daughter’s future and giving them a brighter future that we didn’t have maybe. Yeah, let’s pack the bags, Ruth. All dads are the same. Some things never change.
Kareem Rahma 19:32
A what’s in it for me, B, golf. I’m in. So in 1933 The family moved to LA, Maria was 8. This is during the Great Depression. So Hollywood was kind of an workplace. Nonetheless, it was still the Entertainment Capital of the World. Movies are not movies they used to call them talkies had just premiered a few years ago in 1927. So people were still enamored by the movie theater and it was seen as like almost Depression proof. Like people were still willing to shell out cash to have a three hour escape from their sad lives.
Alyssa Limperis 20:07
Which I do feel has been the same thing with the pandemic like yeah, entertainment is still. It’s the one thing.
Kareem Rahma 20:12
I don’t think it’s totally recession proof, as an economist.
Alyssa Limperis 20:16
Peacock has a bunch of really good programming.
Kareem Rahma 20:18
I actually heard that Peacock has a very cool show.
Alyssa Limperis 20:22
Really cool show. What was that one call? No bad days.
Kareem Rahma 20:27
No bad days. And I think Alyssa what’s her name?
Alyssa Limperis 20:31
I think it’s Alyssa Limperis.
Kareem Rahma 20:35
Oh my god. That’s you.
Alyssa Limperis 20:36
Wait a minute. I’m turned around. I’m so hungry.
Kareem Rahma 20:38
Oh my god. You have a special on peacock?
Alyssa Limperis 20:41
You came to see it? You went the live taping.
Kareem Rahma 20:45
I’m gonna watch it again. I don’t encourage you listeners to watch as well. You know what’s good for you?
Alyssa Limperis 20:55
Somebody’s interest has been piqued. So the day they arrived, the mother was chatting with a random store clerk and told them that they just arrived and asked if he knew a good dance teacher. He recommended this guy called Ernest Belcher. Maria later wrote in her memoir, and anonymous man in an unfamiliar town, decided our fate with those few words. Belcher was such an excellent teacher that he helped […] realize that she’d been training incorrectly in Oklahoma, and he got her back on track. In California, Maria encountered racism for the first time for classmates teased her for her two words birth surname, mocking her by doing ignorant whipping, Indian war cries they’d seen on TV, and asking her where her feathers were. She grew really self-conscious of her last name and decided that she’d be better off combining the two words, and thus, Tallchief became Tallchief. At 12 years old, Maria’s life would change forever. Again.
Kareem Rahma 22:14
No, it was actually really perfect.
Alyssa Limperis 22:20
In LA, she began training with Bratislava, Nijinsky, an amazing instructor who is a graduate of the grand ballet academies of the […]. Madame spoke no English, but you could feel her greatness. She would mumble something and her husband would say you are like spaghetti, you must pull-pull. She was kind but very intense. In Nijinsky’s class, Maria saw just how elegant ballet could look when perfected the jet ski and noticed Tallchief’s desire to perfect her ballet and focused on helping her reach her goals. At 15, she made her debut at the Hollywood Bowl, a massive outdoor amphitheater, that Rolling Stone has called one of the 10 best music venues in America. She did really well. Except that she slipped.
Alyssa Limperis 23:11
So it was bad. It was bad.
Kareem Rahma 23:17
The way your tone is doing it. It’s breaking my heart. It is literally breaking my heart.
Alyssa Limperis 23:25
Okay, so she slipped and fell. Okay, there’s a happy ending. Yes.
Kareem Rahma 23:32
She did really well, except that she slipped, mid performance. That’s it just one little slip. But she absolutely crushed.
Alyssa Limperis 23:45
Kareem Rahma 23:48
No. Okay, listeners, we’re gonna go back for a minute. Okay? Just one little slip. But Nijinsky, encouraged her to shrug it off telling her it happens to everybody. And that her performance was amazing and promising. And it drove Maria to perfection. And to never slip again. Kind of a happy ending. It didn’t ruin her career.
Alyssa Limperis 24:17
And it’s a good lesson. I feel like being like, okay, instead of beating yourself up about mistakes or when thing you go, okay, that’s something I’ll learn from that. And then I won’t let it happen again. Live a life of pain and precision, to the point where I never ever slip again.
Kareem Rahma 24:34
I just made that declaration to that. You know what? I’m never gonna slip again. I’m done slipping. into wonderful. In 1942, Maria graduates from Beverly Hills High School at 17 years old and sets her heart on practicing ballet full time. That summer. An old family friend asked Maria if she would like to accompany her to New York City. It was only supposed to be a visit, but it changed her life forever. Okay, okay. I think we’re on the third one. The next part is really good. When she got to New York, Maria sought out surge denim, the director of the prestigious ballet Ruth de Monte Carlo, this touring ballet troupe had been forced to relocate to New York from Paris after the Germans invaded during World War Two. She knew denim because he had praised her at an audition in California. But she was hoping that denim would put her off, but it wouldn’t be so easy. Denim didn’t remember. In fact, a secretary turned Maria away, saying that the company didn’t need any more dancers. She was crushed, and she left crying, but chances would have it that denim was in a bind. Half of his dancers were Russians without passports and the company was supposed to leave on a tour for Canada. So they took Tallchief in as an unpaid apprentice, probably mostly for her American passports. Denim wanted Tallchief to change her name. Russian ballet dancers had more credibility, and he thought it would help to change her name to something like called Tallchiva. And Maria straight up said, no.
Alyssa Limperis 26:20
Oh, very good. Change your last name? No, no, no. Greek, we have last name. We not change it because it’s important to be Greek. He’s good to be Greek, Greek last name. You like Greek food? Kareem? Very good answer. Good answer.
Kareem Rahma 26:42
This is saying if Limperis was like, let’s make it an Italian. […]
Alyssa Limperis 26:46
You want to be a chef. Now you have to change it to […] if you want to make spaghetti.
Kareem Rahma 26:55
And this is the beginning. Yeah. All right. So she goes on tour, and she stood out. She was taller than most ballerinas at five, nine and she had high cheekbones. On stage she looked dreamy and Royal. After the Canadian Tour, one of the dancers got pregnant and left the troupe. They offered Maria her spot and made her a full-fledged member of the troupe, which came with a decent salary of 40 bucks a week, just over 725 in today’s dollars equivalent $3,000 a month. At first, I was like this is kind of livable to sue your passion. And also ballet is definitely like, everything is hard. But ballet is so hard. You can’t eat.
Alyssa Limperis 27:43
And you can’t eat and it’s not like sustainable. You’re not like well, I can do this forever. So I’m gonna make a lot of money because it’s not a long time.
Kareem Rahma 27:50
I think it’s probably not a good deal. On her first day as a professional ballerina, Tallchief ran into an old friend. Her mentor Nijinsky, came to New York to stage the […]. The same show Tallchief performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Nijinsky loved Tallchief and chose her to be the main stars understudy. This was a big deal. The Russian ballerinas didn’t like it at all, and it made tall chief the primary target for the resentment but Tallchief didn’t mind. At the same time, Maria’s troupe was also preparing to perform a New Ballet called rodeo, meant to showcase American Ballet. The choreographer pulled me aside to gently ask her to consider shortening her name.
Alyssa Limperis 28:44
Enough with, that the poor thing she can’t get her break.
Kareem Rahma 28:47
The choreographer knew it was a sensitive subject. She’d heard about the Tallchiva incident, and didn’t want to offend Tallchief. Instead, she suggested using a modified version of her middle name. So up until this point, she was known as Elizabeth Maria Tallchief. But for the simplicity of the episode, I’ve been calling her Maria. So she went from Elizabeth Maria to Maria Tallchief.
Alyssa Limperis 29:15
Yeah, well, you know, my Greek name is Elizabeth. Maybe I should change it. Maybe I should add more syllables.
Kareem Rahma 29:27
You know, my dad, when he moved to America, he put Krem, on my papers as Kareem, so for the first 11 or so years of my life, my legal name was crap.
Alyssa Limperis 29:46
And your mom like, what did you do?
Kareem Rahma 29:49
No one said anything about it, They called me Kareem. And every day on the first day of school, the teacher would be like Krem, and I’d be like it’s Kareem, you stupid idiot. Because I’m Egyptian. You guys don’t get it never heard the name before. Yes. And I remember the moment it clicked when I was like, holy shit. And I approached my dad I’m like, What the hell is this man? And he’s like, figured to be easier to memorize and easier to spell. I go yeah, but it’s literally the wrong name. I actually have it tattooed on myself. That’s cool. That’s like a homage to my old self. We’ll have to think about that. We’re in Hollywood talking baby. He’s the new peacock talkie. I mean, honestly, I think normalized, changing your name to what you feel like changing. If my name was Gary. I would change it.
Alyssa Limperis 30:53
Yeah. And that’s no offense to Gary’s out there. But change it. Alright, so okay, where was I? Where was I? Where was I? All right, Where did the name change? So in just two months. Maria Tallchief appeared in seven different ballets in her new troupe. The New York Times dance critic John Martin, who was possibly the most revered and feared critic of the time saw Tallchief debut as a full member of the troupe. Here’s what he had to say. Tallchief gave us a stunning account of herself in Nijinsky’s […]. She has an easy brilliance that smacks of authority rather than Beauvoir. In 1943, she finally get her real big shot. After the prima ballerina quit. Maria was tapped into sub in with very little time to prepare. But she performed the entire ballet perfectly shocking everyone. This led to more big roles and years later in 1945. Her life changed again. The great Russian choreographer George Ballantine, joined the company, balance sheet was a revolutionary. His work was slick, calculated and extremely precise. It required speed and athleticism. Like nothing else before it. She cast her in literally everything. He found a ballerina, who’s as daring as he was, and she admired him as a genius. Nobody saw this next move. He asked Tallchief to marry her. Balanchine was 42. Maria was 21 red flag.
Kareem Rahma 34:04
Yeah, sure, but it was the 40s. We could do it back then. It was his third marriage. He’d obsess over one woman making her his artistic Muse and romantic partner, and then abandoned her for the next best thing. Maria was aware of it. But if he was using her, she might have also sought to use him too. In her words, Balanchine always married dancers. I don’t think he married people. He wasn’t really like a person. He was a Jesus. His whole life was music and dance, passion and romance. didn’t play a big part in our married life. We saved our emotions for the classroom.
Alyssa Limperis 34:58
Wow, actually, that’s a twist. Yeah, I just thought it was gonna be like we were so passionate and like our bodies were. It’s like, no.
Kareem Rahma 35:05
They were passionate. They were workaholics.
Alyssa Limperis 35:06
He was a genius and she a genius and they didn’t kiss.
Kareem Rahma 35:11
They didn’t kiss. They just sat at their laptop on opposite sides of the room. Babe, what are we getting for lunch? I gotta get through the story though. Perhaps a success in pushing the limits of choreography with Maria convinced Balanchine he’d outgrown their troupe, in 1946 started his own little ballet company, the ballet society, soon renamed New York City Ballet, which is still called today at the Lincoln Performing Arts.
Alyssa Limperis 35:48
Which is the peak, right? That’s the best one.
Kareem Rahma 35:50
So They started together. We’ll save it for later. We’re getting there. I promise.
Alyssa Limperis 36:08
All right. That’s the thing. I have no clue where it starts and ends. Life keeps changing. So it could be like, I don’t know.
Kareem Rahma 36:33
Maria did not join him immediately. She honored her contract with the valley rousse de Monte Carlo until it expired in 1947. Then she joined Balanchine on a trip to Paris, where he was staging productions for the Paris Opera Ballet. This was a huge deal. The Paris Opera Ballet was known as the world’s most important stage. Only one American had ever performed there before. It was Marjorie, Maria’s younger sister. The French media did not like Maria. The newspapers read in quotes. Redskin dances at the opera. But that wouldn’t matter. Because the French audiences swoon over her. Her talent was undeniable. You’re so good. I’m just this. I’m gonna get an alien from starwars. The French media didn’t like her. But the French audiences did. Her and Balanchine return to New York, where they both fully committed to the New York City Ballet. And Maria was its marquee attraction. And this was it. She was the company’s first prima ballerina. But more importantly, in this moment, she became America’s first prima ballerina, and even doubly more important was that she was also America’s first Native American prima ballerina. Together, they crushed it. Her performances were legendary as she flawlessly executed Balanchine’s most difficult works. The New York Times dance critic wrote that Balanchine has asked her to do everything except for spin on her head, and she does it with complete, incomparable brilliance. She was lauded for communicating the music so perfectly through her body that even the pauses, the moments of stillness inter woven throughout her performance were considered perfect. It allowed the audience to keep up with the music of choreography, and it’s a skill taught in ballet to this day.
Alyssa Limperis 38:51
All good things must come to an end.
Kareem Rahma 38:54
Despite their professional success. The relationship turned sour. Maria began imagining her life outside of ballet. She wanted kids, Balanchine didn’t. They both started to feel they had outgrown each other and their marriage was an old 1941.
Alyssa Limperis 39:13
That’s kind of a beautiful way of putting it isn’t it that they both felt they outgrew each other?
Kareem Rahma 39:19
They separated amicably and continue to work together to the New York City Ballet. Balanchine even continued to choreograph ballets, just for her. It’s a nice way to end things. No ghosting, no. No bad text. Oh, just like, let’s move on. And I kind of like it.
Alyssa Limperis 39:40
You want different things at that point? Yeah.
Alyssa Limperis 39:42
And people either truck it out and become miserable. In 1955 Balanchine dusted off an old obscure ballet and choreographed it with Maria in mind. He gave her the lead as the Sugar Plum Fairy, it was such a popular show that it would become the company’s perpetual Christmas holiday offering. They still perform to this day. You may know it as the Nutcracker. This is so cool. And because of them, it has become an American Christmas tradition. And one of ballet’s biggest commercial successes ever.
Alyssa Limperis 40:28
Totally. I feel it’s most people’s introduction to ballet.
Kareem Rahma 40:33
The nutcracker is remarkable. Remarkable. That’s great. And she was, I mean, this is like, this is their thing they created, they created two of the most important kind of like institutions of American culture, true York City Ballet, and the Nutcracker. And like, I don’t know how many percent of people in the United States know who Maria Tallchief is. But it is not a lot.
Alyssa Limperis 41:01
No, it’s definitely not because before the Nutcracker.
Alyssa Limperis 41:05
Exactly, yeah. Before this podcast, I had no idea. And that’s the reason this podcast exists. Okay, back to the story. 1960, Maria was invited to perform in another global center of ballet, Russia. I like to think the Russian dancers that had teased her before were made jealous, but I can’t confirm or deny that. Maria performed at the famed Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow the most prestigious Theatre in all of Russia. She was the first American to ever do so. And when the show was over, the audience erupted in applause. Legend has it that the premier of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev, quietly came to watch her perform. He couldn’t be seen enjoying something American in the middle of the Cold War. But that legend is floating out there. So it might be true. After retiring from the New York City Ballet at 41, she moved to Chicago and founded the Chicago City Ballet. After balance, she and she married twice more having one daughter with a third husband, a young man from a big Chicago construction family. She said he was very happy, outgoing, and knew nothing about ballet. Very refreshing. To me, this is like the equivalent of having like a boyfriend who’s not on Instagram. He doesn’t know what a real is. Yeah, like girls are like, Oh, God, that’s so hot. Oh, that’s so funny. Okay, let me get back to the story. For their honeymoon, she took him touring across Europe watching ballets. But in 1999, her husband was sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion. But they did stay married until he died in 2004. And, in 2013, Maria Tallchief died at a Chicago hospital after complications from a broken hip. She was 18 years old. Though she is best known for dance, Tallchief has also remembered for her dedication to her Osage heritage. After her death, Osage Nation honored her with the title, woman of two worlds. Maria is also beloved by the people of Oklahoma, and was given an honorific day June 29th, Maria Tallchief day and she has a life sized bronze statue in the Tulsa Historical Society. In 2023. Her likeness will be coined. The US Mint is releasing a limited edition series of American women quarters, and one will feature Maria Tallchief, Tallchief has been inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements. Her life has been the subject of multiple documentaries and biographies. Her daughter, Elise Patchen has made a career for herself as an exceptional award winning poet based in Chicago, and her sister, Marjorie Tallchief, had a very successful ballet career of her own with American Ballet Theatre, and the Paris Opera Ballet, where she was the first American to perform in Paris, and their brother Tommy Tallchief, was drafted into the NFL in 1946 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they’re very much a high achieving family. Tallchief’s mother produced a huge box of memorabilia for daughters career including programs and newspaper clippings from around the world. Some of it was on display in 2006, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wherein they presented a special tribute to Maria titled, The Tribute to ballet great Maria Tallchief. It’s pure magic when it’s right. It’s just magical. For me, it’s a wonderful experience to work with dancers who understand to see the difference. Beyond making a name for herself, she put American Ballet on the map. New York is considered a mecca of ballet on par with Paris and Moscow almost entirely by Maria’s career. Her impact wasn’t only international, and Tallchief lives on through the school she established in Chicago, which continues to produce homegrown American Ballet talent to this day. But of course, and most significantly, she proved that a generational dance talent can come from anywhere, including a Native American reservation. And that my friend, Alyssa, is the story of Maria Tallchief. The first American and Native American prima ballerina.
Alyssa Limperis 45:50
Wow, cool. That was great story. It’s a cool story. And I feel like I don’t learn new things. It’s like, I’m just scrolling. It’s nice to hear about someone’s life in gaps. It’s nice to stop the scroll.
Kareem Rahma 46:06
And open up the earbuds. Lots of knowledge flow in.
Alyssa Limperis 46:12
Swishing around in the brain.
Kareem Rahma 46:14
Entertainment needs education that’s the combination. That’s all. Let’s do it again. Next time on FIRST, make sure to catch me and Ramy Youssef. As we talk about Omar Sharif, the first Arab actor to be nominated for an Academy Award.
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