Oklahoma's gift to ballet: The Five Moons ballerinas
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 13, 2024

Oklahoma's gift to ballet: The Five Moons ballerinas
Maria Tallchief as a principal at the New York City Ballet, Feb. 2, 1954. A festival at the University of Oklahoma celebrates the impact of the ballerina on 20th century ballet, honoring her Native American heritage. Sam Falk/The New York Times.

by Meryl Cates

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- At the first Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festival, in 1957, its founder, Moscelyne Larkin, danced Myrtha in Act Two of “Giselle” and Maria Tallchief performed an excerpt from “Swan Lake.” It was a festival created to honor five Native American ballerinas, all hailing from Oklahoma. But it would take 10 years, and the premiere of a ballet, “The Four Moons,” for the festival to really celebrate the dancers’ heritages as well as their artistry.

As prima ballerinas in the 1940s through the 1960s in major companies, Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Larkin, and Maria and Marjorie Tallchief were transformative artists. This summer, the Five Moons Dance Festival, presented by the University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance, will celebrate their impact on 20th century ballet, honoring the significance of their Indigenous backgrounds.

“The Four Moons” ballet, with a score by Cherokee-Quapaw composer Louis Ballard Sr., was danced in 1967 at the second Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festival with four of the ballerinas. The fifth, Maria Tallchief, perhaps the most recognized in American ballet, had retired from dancing and remained firm in her decision not to perform. It was the first time, as professionals, they would represent their own stories as Native American women on the stage.

Without any known recordings of the performance, “The Four Moons” has been fragmented into a few hazy memories, with some clues left by reviewers. Larkin (Shawnee-Peoria), performed a swift and effervescent solo, and then Hightower (Choctaw) appeared in a self-choreographed, playful story. Next came Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), whose elegant variation shifted the atmosphere in the theater, enrapturing the audience. That led into a section by Chouteau (Shawnee-Cherokee) about the devastating Trail of Tears, with delicate yet determined bourrées pulling her heavy heart along, despite her gliding feet.

“I’m very glad we did it,” Marjorie Tallchief, 94, said recently, on the phone from her home in Delray Beach, Florida. “It was amazing, at that time, that they got us all together.”

On a program including works by George Balanchine and Bronislava Nijinska, “The Four Moons” was created to honor the histories of these tribes as they were forced from their land and settled in Oklahoma. The dancers themselves were meant to represent the destinies of the tribes; the original program featured them as four moons in a painting by artist Jerome Tiger, who was Muscogee-Seminole. They would later become known as Oklahoma’s Five Moons ballerinas. (Marjorie Tallchief is the only one still alive.)

Audiences loved “The Four Moons,” but some critics stumbled over its convergence of Native American themes and classical ballet, seemingly surprised by a traditional pas de quatre instead of a “corn dance or sun dance,” as The Saturday Review put it.

With so much discussion in the dance world about representation and diversity, the moment for a Five Moons festival seemed right to Michael Bearden, director of the School of Dance, which was founded by Chouteau and her husband, Miguel Terekhov. Bearden also wanted to involve female choreographers, who are still rare in ballet, and Native communities (there are 39 federally recognized tribal nations in Oklahoma) through conversations exploring aspects of the Five Moons ballerinas’ careers and lives as Native women.

The festival, which runs Aug. 27-29, will feature works by Stefanie Batten Bland, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Rena Butler and DaYoung Jung, as well as Osage Ballet’s “Wahzhazhe,” about the story of the Osage nation, produced by Randy Tinker Smith and choreographed by Jenna Smith.

Russ Tall Chief, who lives in Oklahoma and is related to Marjorie and Maria Tallchief through his great-grandfather, is on the festival’s planning committee and will participate in one of the lectures.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that Maria and Marjorie and all five of the ballerinas came out of Oklahoma, from small rural reservation communities,” he said. “To have these women of color, representing not just American Indians, but America, on the ballet stage was profound.”

Excerpts from the ballet “Wahzhazhe” will include an opening prayer section, an important tradition of the tribe.

“To us, to Osages, there’s a direct silence about Native America,” Tinker Smith said. “Because every day we face challenges. We have to work harder, try harder and do better, just to have things that non-Indians have. And I think that the timing is perfect for this. To have this legacy of these five ballerinas in our past, that are part of us, really inspires the kids. You can dream and you can follow your dreams.”

In the 1940s, when Chouteau, Hightower, Larkin and the Tallchiefs were beginning their careers, they were proudly Oklahoman, though ballet as an art form was widely considered European.

The only season in which Hightower, Larkin and Marjorie Tallchief were together in Col. W. de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe, 1946-47, the program linked them together by their home state, and distinguished them among the company’s handful of Americans. (Larkin was billed as Moussia Larkina; like many others she had opted for a Russian-sounding stage name, which she soon shed again for Larkin.) Only Tallchief is identified further as “of Indian ancestry, part Osage.”

“It was part of me, it was my name,” Marjorie Tallchief said, acknowledging that being Osage was significant in her career. After a lengthy pause, she added: “Actually, my father made me promise that I would never change my name. I just suddenly remembered when I was leaving, he said, ‘You promise me you’ll never change your name?’ And I said, yes. So I never did.”

Marjorie and Maria Tallchief grew up in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and it was their mother who encouraged their early music and dance training. The Tallchiefs performed sister act dance routines, first locally — including at the Tall Chief Theater, built by their father, Alex Tall Chief, which still stands today — and then in California, where their mother relocated them for better ballet instruction. It was in Beverly Hills that Maria made the adjustment from Tall Chief to Tallchief.

She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at 17, leaving several years later to join Ballet Society, the company that would become New York City Ballet, after becoming the wife of George Balanchine, its founding choreographer. There she ascended to star status.

Balanchine, who adored America, loved her Osage heritage, she wrote in her 1997 autobiography. But strained cultural characterizations prevailed in the 1944 version of his “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” which included a “Danse Indienne” pas de deux. In a performance crisply preserved on 16 mm film, Maria dances quick stylized parallel lifts of her knees wearing a billowy feathered headdress, pompoms and a sash. (Balanchine would later rework the ballet entirely, with no “Danse Indienne.”) She went on to important roles in ballets including “Firebird” and “The Four Temperaments,” and became a beacon of American dancing.

Marjorie followed her sister into professional ballet, joining Ballet Theater and then de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in France. In 1956 she was invited to join the Paris Opera Ballet as the first American étoile, the highest rank in the company, commanding classical repertoire with her exhilarating control and lyrical stage presence.

Hightower also made her career largely in Europe, eventually becoming a leading ballerina with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. She was so beloved that when she returned to that company in 1957, after ending a touring contract with Ballet Theater, audiences applauded for 15 minutes during her entrance in “Piège de Lumière.”

These five distinguished Native American ballerinas came out of Oklahoma all within one decade. As students, they frequented some of the same studios and master classes, including in Kansas City and Los Angeles, but in fleeting phases, just as they sometimes performed in companies together during their careers. In several interviews, Chouteau credited her Shawnee-Cherokee heritage as her inspiration to dance. (As a child she toured Oklahoma, her family insisting on the authenticity of each of her dances.) Marjorie Tallchief noted the immense influence the Ballet Russe had on small towns as it made its way through the country.

Chouteau and Larkin would go on to perform alongside the dancers that they once admired from the audience. Chouteau was a leading ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which she joined at 14; and Larkin made her career with companies including de Basil’s Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

As professionals the Five Moon dancers would each encounter challenges, not only because of the grind of constant traveling, but also because they needed to find their place in the culture of their companies not just as Oklahomans, but also as Native women. Being from the United States, they were perceived by the public and press as demonstrating an overall informality, and possessing an ease onstage. While internationally respected, Hightower was still referred to as a “little American girl” in a Dance Magazine feature. Chouteau recalled her fellow dancers encouraging her to pronounce her name in a more French way, instead of how she grew up saying it in her family. They were Americans in a time when ballet wasn’t exactly American yet.

In an early review written about Maria Tallchief, John Martin of The New York Times noted her Osage heritage and said that “with careful handling,” she might very well “develop into ballerina material.” A decade later, in 1954, she was featured on the cover of Newsweek, with the headline “The Ballet’s Tallchief: Native Dancer,” her Osage heritage used to signal a “new order in the ancient and honorable clan of ballerinas.”

A reframing had occurred, especially in the media — if ballet was now American, it proposed, then here were your truly American dancers. “We were a curiosity,” Chouteau said in an interview in The Oklahoman in 1982, when gathered for the state’s Diamond Jubilee.

Marjorie Tallchief said that in Europe, newspapers mentioned she was Osage, but she thought it was a different treatment than her sister might have experienced in the States.

“They didn’t have anything against me,” Marjorie Tallchief said. “Maybe, but not because of my heritage.

“Back in the Paris Opera I was the only one who wasn’t French,” she said. “Obviously, they noticed this. It’s very hard to become a dancer at the Paris Opera. So anyone that comes from outside as a first dancer” — or étoile — “I would say there was a little pressure on me because of that.”

Despite every desire to define them, and describe them within ballet’s rigid terms, they established five distinct and powerful careers.

“These are American Indian people that have made this impact on ballet,” Russ Tall Chief said. “And that they consider themselves American Indian before they consider themselves ballerinas, I think that’s important. That is part of their vocabulary as dancers. They bring that history of American Indian culture to their dance, and to their interpretation of the way that they see ballet.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

August 20, 2021

Why some in this neighborhood oppose a museum dedicated to their culture

Chuck Close, artist of outsized reality, dies at 81

Colnaghi to offer masterworks at TEFAF Online

Exhibition at Hamburger Kunsthalle illustrates the unique impact of Renaissance artist Raphael

Frick publication provides new insights on innovative fourteenth-century Venetian artist

Art Basel unveils further show highlights for its 2021 edition in Basel

National Gallery releases photographs of documents relating to the theft of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington

Bertoia Auctions announces Part II of Schroeder Antique Toy & Bank Collection

Pokémon rarities set to fetch £15,000 each in Ewbank's £66,000 debut Trading Cards auction on August 25

MFA Boston appoints Marina Tyquiengco as inaugural Ellyn McColgan Assistant Curator of Native American Art

Cosmoscow 2021 announces the full list of participants

Exhibition at Ippodo Gallery celebrates summer and the Obon holiday season

1954 Alvis first owned by WWII fighter pilot ace for sale with H&H Classics

AllesWirdGut wins prize at urban planning idea competition: Islands for the Suburbs

How a French novelist turns the tables on history

Software for Less: Ben Grosser opens exhibition at Arebyte Gallery

Pippa Harris appointed Chair of Charleston's Board of Trustees

In memoriam: Beloved curator, educator, and friend Linda Eaton

International jury panel for Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 and The Richard Mille Art Prize unveiled

Norwegian artist Marianne Heske to present an installation in S-AR's Cylinder Pavilion

Japanese martial arts actor, 'Kill Bill' star Sonny Chiba dies: agent

Levi jeans fragments, two Geronimo photos and a Bechtler gold coin lead sale

Oklahoma's gift to ballet: The Five Moons ballerinas

The Hong Kong Art Gallery Association announces the return of UNSCHEDULED

How To Choose The Right Mattress Brand

Best Colognes to Use

Is Bitcoin SV a Good Investment?

RISING STAR: 7.1 Billion Dollar Poem titled "Destroying Principalities" Set To Release in October!

The most popular wall art trends for home decoration

How Online Casinos Choose Which Bonuses to Offer

Tips for a student on how to start working as a tutor

All of Your Biggest Business Questions Answered

Elevate Your Workout Routine With These Tips and Tricks

Get The Help You Need for Your Health Journey

The Necessities for Your Next Weekend at Home

How to Learn Drawing Using a Smartphone

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful