Maria Tallchief: By Turns Firebird, Cinderella, Mother, Muse. A Conversation with Elise Paschen
Play • 34 min

Maria Tallchief  was  born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief  in 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma, where her grandfather had served as chief in the Osage Nation. Seventeen years later, she found her way to New York and became one of the most famous American ballerinas of the 20th century.

She rejected suggestions that she change her name to Tallchieva, at the time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names,

Tallchief would become forever linked to some of George Balanchine's most transformational ballets. (Not only was she his prinicipal muse, but she was married to him  for six years). In 1949, when she danced the title role of Igor Stravinsky's  Firebird to Balanchine's incredibly complex choreography, she caused a sensation. No one had seen anything like it. At the height of her career, Tallchief was considered  the most technically brilliant ballerina the U.S. had ever produced.

I spoke with Maria Tallchief's daughter, the renowned poet Elise Paschen,  about her mother's childhood, her devotion to Balanchine, her hard work and self discipline, her marriages, and the ways in which she expressed her love for her daughter. Elise read two poems she wrote about her mother.

And in the Department of Odd Coincidences, there's this: For years, every time I've moved (and I've moved a lot), I've taken with me a much loved  book I own, titled Poetry Speaks. I bought it for the written poems, but also for the  three CD's it came with, filled with spoken poetry. For years I kept the discs in my car and listened to those CD's while driving, soothed by verse read by the poets themselves:  Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot; Dorothy Parker;  Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg,  Sylvia Plath. At some point after Spotify had taken the steering wheel of  my listening  habits, I lost the poetry CD's.

But the book remains in my possession. And I keep it close at hand on the bookshelf next to my desk. Occasionally, I take it down, open it, and read whatever poem I happen upon.

Then, a few weeks ago, just  before Elise and I were set to talk, I glanced at the shelf, and my eyes lingered  just long enough on Poetry Speaks to take in the names of the volume's editors: Elise Paschen. How strange that I'd never bothered to read the name. Yet now, how fitting. And thirty minutes later, there she was, reading poetry -- her own -- aloud.

Artwork by Paula Mangin (@PaulaBallah)
Music composed and performed by Andrea Perry
Producer: Alice Hudson
Social Media: Sophie McNulty

Mother Word Cloud: Please contribute the one word that best describes your mother to the Mother Word Cloud at

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