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Maria Tallchief: First American Prima Ballerina

In a Pacific Northwest forest, a man builds a box. He pries a massive yet thin slice of cedar from a log, then painstakingly carves out perfectly measured wedges. With great strength and patience, he bends up one edge, spiraling toward the other to form an airtight box. In this empty box, he carries the secrets of his Native American ancestors—technical secrets of the box-making craft, spiritual secrets of the cedar plant, and personal secrets of his connection to his heritage.

Maria Tallchief in George Balanchine's Orpheus Photo courtesy of Northwest Film Forum
The estate of George Platt Lynes/The George Balanchine Trust/New York City Ballet Archives
Tallchief as Eurydice in Balanchine’s Orpheus c. 1948
Photo courtesy of Northwest Film Forum

This short film, A Bentwood Box by Sandy and Yasu Osawa, was screened at Northwest Film Forum on April 17, and served as an apt introduction to the main theme of their feature film, Maria Tallchief. The famous Native American dancer from the Osage tribe, who was this country’s “first prima ballerina,” Tallchief was certainly put into boxes during her career. She continuously fought stereotypes and barriers stemming from her ethnicity. However, she ruthlessly maintained her connection to her heritage while painstakingly pursuing ballet. Her version of the bentwood box carried the technical prowess of Osage and ballet dance, spiritual power of her passionate heart, and personal connection to her heritage and legacy. Sandy Osawa, as one of the only female Native American filmmakers in the country, similarly breaks her own “boxes,” while telling a nuanced story.


The film tells Tallchief’s life story within historical context. Using interviews with Tallchief herself, her community, and dance critics and historians, the Osawas build a well-organized and magnetic film with seamless transitions. Yasu Osawa, the film’s main editor, said his goal was to create a “dream-like” atmosphere in which clips blend from one to the other in a “natural flow,” just like Tallchief’s dancing.


Tallchief grew up with strong ties to traditional culture, but she chose to pursue what was at the time a strictly European art form. The Osawas argue that Tallchief was not limited by her heritage, but freed by it. She did “her art as she chose it.” In fact, it was partly her culture that helped her excel. According to historians and friends, Tallchief’s teacher, Bronislava Nijinska, preferred to demonstrate rather than speak. As one Osage tribal member points out, it is not uncommon for Osage relations to communicate without speaking. This familiarity with non-verbal communication allowed Tallchief to excel in Nijinska’s difficult ballet classes.


The film contains footage so rare, even Tallchief herself had never seen most of it. It took the Osawas years to obtain all the archival footage they needed. Though many have seen footage of this iconic dancer’s work, none have yet seen Tallchief and her stunning arabesque in an early American staging of Swan Lake. Another particularly moving clip shows a 1956 staging of George Balanchine’s Orpheus. Tallchief’s Eurydice moves sensuously with Nicholas Magallanes’s Orpheus on Isamu Noguchi’s minimal, feathery, DNA-like set. The choreography was, of course, ahead of its time, but it is the heart and soul in Tallchief’s movements that pushes the piece over the edge. She wraps herself around Magallenes with an impossible mix of desperation, desire, confusion, and anger, all conveyed through subtle facial expressions and delicate nuances between gestures. The footage makes it clear she was not just technically sound, but willing to put her entire being into every moment.


Many dance historians and students know Tallchief’s name, but most don’t readily associate her with the success of New York City Ballet. However, as this film unequivocally shows, Tallchief was the inspiration for most of Balanchine’s early US choreography. It was her work as Eurydice in Orpheus that led to the foundation of New York City Ballet in the 1940s. As several artists and critics point out in the film, Balanchine had been working for years to establish a company in the United States, but it wasn’t until he utilized the magic Tallchief ingredient that he became successful in that endeavor. Additionally, it was her solo in Firebird, another role choreographed specifically for her, that led to the worldwide success of New York City Ballet.


The Osawas pointed out that ballet today does not have the same magic as it did back then. Their theory is that egos have become involved in all art forms, and the importance of the larger picture has become subsumed. “Less is more,” they said, but nowadays artists tend to stray away from simplicity, from tradition, and from respect for their elders. Even while Tallchief was alive, for example, the dance world did not utilize the incredible wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and talent she carried. However, as Yasu Osawa pointed out, tradition should not be favored over novelty: balance is the key.


Sandy Osawa said she made the film to show this balance. Although Tallchief’s story is one from the past, contemporary Native Americans, particularly female artists, experience the same challenges. It is their job to decide how to balance the past with the present. They must choose how to support the unlimited nature of their spirit by breaking out of boxes. Osawa uses the modern medium of film to show the lives of traditional people. This helps her break down those barriers and gives other women the courage to do the same.


An ancient bentwood box-maker. A historical ballerina. A modern-day filmmaker. All three demonstrate dedication, balance, and passionate spirit. Maria Tallchief is a must-see for anyone interested in ballet, American art, feminism, or indigenous lives in America. It is as close as we can get to glimpsing Tallchief’s out-of-this-world artistry.

If you missed this week’s screening at the Northwest Film Festival, you can still see Maria Tallchief and support the local filmmakers by purchasing the film on DVD here. It was shown as part of the Indigenous Showcase, a monthly event curated by Tracy Rector, who strives to raise awareness and support for indigenous filmmakers.