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How Five American Indian Dancers Transformed Ballet in the 20th Century

Maria Tallchief in 'Swan Lake,' choreographed by George Balanchine (photo by Roger Wood, 1952) (courtesy New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division)
Maria Tallchief in ‘Swan Lake,’ choreographed by George Balanchine (photo by Roger Wood, 1952) (courtesy New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division)

Five dancers who started their careers in the 1940s redefined dance in the United States, becoming some of the first American prima ballerinas in the world’s top companies, from the Ballets Russes to the Paris Opera Ballet. And they were all American Indians from Oklahoma.

Yvonne Chouteau, one of the “Five Moons,” as they were anointed, died this past Sunday at the age of 86. Along with Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee, 1925–2012), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920–2008), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage, b. 1926), and, most famously, Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925–2013), she rose in the ranks of dance when ballet was still not widely appreciated in this country. The women had distinct careers, but they all danced when they were young at powows and caught performances by the traveling Ballets Russes and other companies, propelling them to study professionally.

Chouteau, who was Shawnee-Cherokee, explained how she started ballet in Lili Cockerille Livingston’s book American Indian Ballerinas:

Of course, my parents were not about to let ballet take me away from my Indian dancing, but they made it possible for me to do both. Looking back, that was very wise, because the recognition I had gained as an Indian dancer offered me tremendous opportunities to perform. I think the San Diego Exposition was the first place that I did both ballet and Indian solos. From then on, I rarely did my exhibition Indian dances without at least one ballet piece. … I had been taught the sanctity of dance as it is seen in the eyes of the Indian and approached ballet the same way.

Maria Tallchief (courtesy OPUBCO)
Maria Tallchief (courtesy OPUBCO) (click to enlarge)

Chouteau joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the age of 14 after, as she put in a 2005 documentary, she auditioned on “a lark.” After touring the world, she returned to Oklahoma and helped start the dance program at the University of Oklahoma in 1960, then went on to direct the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet. You could fill a long litany with the five dancer’s accomplishments, but Larkin’s time in the Original Ballet Russe and her founding of the Tulsa Ballet stand out in particular. Hightower was also part of Ballet Russe and remained involved in ballet throughout France, earning the Chevalier de la Légion in 1975 — while her greatest feat came in 1947, when she learned the lead for Giselle in just under five hours. Marjorie Tallchief was the first American “premiere danseuse étoile” in the Paris Opéra. Her older sister, the unrivaled Maria Tallchief, married choreographer George Balanchine, who in the 1940s and ’50s created leading parts for her in his major ballets, including The Firebird, Swan Lake, and the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker. 

The five never performed together, although all of them but Maria Tallchief, who by then had retired, took part in Louis Ballard’s 1967 The Four Moons at the Second Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festival. The piece merged movement from ballet with the dancers’ heritage and featured Hightower’s fluid, Choctaw-inspired solo; Larkin’s Shawnee-influenced dance with quick, compacting movement; Marjorie Tallchief’s gestural performance, which evolved from Osage dance; and Chouteau’s somber choreography, developed from the Cherokee and Shawnee dances of her youth.

Nora Boustany wrote in Hightower’s Los Angeles Times obituary that the women’s “remarkable accomplishments showcased American dance and talent to the world when Russian stars still dominated that scene.” And as Larkin said in a short documentary produced by NewsOK: “It’s not just a fluke that we are all Native Americans and that we all became dancers.” In the Oklahoma State Capitol, a mural of the five dancers adorns the rotunda. Painted by Mike Larsen, it shows them posed in white tutus, the shadows of the Trail of Tears behind them. Each had a unique style and left her own legacy, but together they promoted their indigenous heritage through the art of dance.

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