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Maria Tallchief, Brilliant American Ballerina Who Broke Barriers, Dies

Maria Tallchief, who broke barriers to become one of the most respected American ballerinas, died on Thursday of complications from a broken hip.

She was 88.

The New York Times reports that Tallchief was "a crucial artistic inspiration for choreographer George Balanchine, her first husband."

As her career took off in the 1940s, so did the New York City Ballet.

In an interview for The George Balanchine Trust, Tallchief described the first performance of Firebird in 1949.

"The city center sounded like a stadium after a football game, after somebody's made a touchdown," Tallchief said. Balanchine, explained Tallchief, said that her performance was the "first great success of the New York City Ballet."

The Washington Post has a bit more on why Tallchief was so important to ballet:

"When she received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, she recalled the pressure she faced as an American dancer. One impresario insisted that she Russianize her name to Tallchieva. 'Never!' she said, although she was open to the concession of changing her surname to one word and to use Maria, a variation on her middle name.

"From the start, her dancing was characterized by precise footwork and an athleticism that dazzled without being excessive. Her regality and grace won critical admirers, as well as the attention of Balanchine, who was consistently impressed by her musicality, which had been honed through childhood piano lessons."

We'll leave you with a clip from the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid. It featured Maria Tallchief performing "The Dying Swan":

Update at 7:18 p.m. ET. Indian Heritage:

The Times has a bit more of her bio:

"A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, and the sister of another noted ballerina, Marjorie Tallchief, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the region nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born in Oklahoma at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas; the others included her sister and Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau.

"Growing up at a time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names, Ms. Tallchief, proud of her Indian heritage, refused to do so, even though friends told her that it would be easy to transform Tallchief into Tallchieva."

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