Nearly seven decades after they first splashed onto the scene, Oklahoma’s first five American Indian ballerinas are still impacting lives and changing the cultural atmosphere of the ballet world. With one of the five now gone, the legacy of the final four lives on in the next generation of American Indian ballerinas ” ballerinas who are not only bearing the torches that were passed to them, but also creating their own visible wildfires.
While the south of France recovers from the November 2008 loss of one of its adopted daughters, it would be easy to forget that Rosella Hightower was, first, daughter of the red dirt and yellow hills of Durwood in Carter County. Unmistakably elegant to watch, this beautiful Choctaw ballerina was one of the first classical ballerinas to gain national acclaim as she took her pirouettes from Oklahoma to Cannes, France.
Leaving for the French Riviera to join the newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1938, Charles Edgar and Eula May Flanning Hightower’s only child was catapulted onto the world stage. Known throughout the dance world as a quick study with fierce determination, Hightower changed the way the world said “prima ballerina” and, much to the amazement of the balletomanes of Europe, she was not alone.
FIVE ‘HIHLAS’ AND A PRINCIPALITY
It was the late 1930s, and Monte Carlo was taking its place as the holiday haven for royalty and the nouveau riche of the world. Known for its picturesque landscaping, mouthwatering cuisine and Mediterranean setting, the five Oklahoma “hihlas” ” or “dancers” ” Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and Hightower were about to shift the cultural kaleidoscope and refocus the tiny principality toward the world of classical ballet.
Over the next decade, Oklahoma’s five American Indian ballerinas would all premiere with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo: Hightower debuted in 1938, Maria Tallchief in 1942, Chouteau in 1943, Marjorie Tallchief in 1946 and Larkin in 1948.
Suzanne Tate, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, said Oklahomans should take pride in the miracle of their contribution ” a contribution that was felt both on, and off, center stage.
“During the 1940s and ’50s, the ballerinas made the leap from small towns in Oklahoma to capturing the rapt attention of dance lovers worldwide. As children, they were surrounded by native dance, yet they were trained in classical ballet. Each rose to fame as prima ballerinas of the Ballet Russe,” Tate said.
“Their accomplishments make us proud not only because of the attention and honor they brought to Oklahoma, but because their achievements not only elevated the art of dance in our state, but continue to impact ballet companies around the globe today. We celebrate the outstanding contributions these ballerinas made to the cultural heritage of our state, our nation and the world.”
CREATING A LEGACY
Although it may not have been their original intention, the vast legacy left in the wake of the five ballerinas is the stuff of fairy tales. From the unlikely decision of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s choreographer George Balanchine to allow Chouteau to join his company at the age of 14 (making her the youngest ever to become a member of the dance company), to Hightower becoming prima ballerina with the de Cuevas Ballet in Vichy, France, in 1947, the legacy of the five includes not only the accolades that their talents helped them attain, but also the next generation of American Indian ballerinas they continue to inspire.
After helping to found the New York City Ballet alongside Balanchine, her husband, and his close colleague Lincoln Kirstein in 1948, Maria Tallchief went on to see her efforts become the epicenter of the cultural explosion that resurrected New York City’s arts community in the ’50s and ’60s. Together, the team of Tallchief, Kirstein and Balanchine created some of the world’s most famous ballets, including Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” “Pas de Six” and “Firebird.”
Tallchief later went on to become the artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975 and in 1981 had the unique distinction of founding the Chicago City Ballet.
Inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame at the age of 18, Chouteau’s legacy also includes teaming with her husband, Miguel Terekhov, a former principal dancer with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in organizing the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet ” now known as Oklahoma City Ballet ” in 1963.
Turning their attention toward education, Chouteau and Terekhov served as guest artists in residence at the University of Oklahoma in 1960 and went on to found and develop the university’s school of dance, which offers the Indian Ballerina Scholarship Endowment in her honor.
Trained under the acclaimed Bronislava Nijinska and David Lichine in Los Angeles, Marjorie Tallchief, the sister of Maria Tallchief, earned her ballerina status with the de Cuevas Ballet at the age of 19. The first American to dance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Tallchief held the similar distinction of being named “premiere danseuse etoile” of the Paris Opera by 1956. She served as the director of dance for both the City Ballet of Chicago and the Civic Ballet Academy in Dallas and was honored with an induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in November 1991.
Trained in ballet under her Russian-born mother, it wasn’t long before Larkin decided to seek out professional instruction in dance ” a decision that landed her in New York City under the tutelage of the great ballet dancer Mikhail Mordkin. Larkin, who would later study with Anatole Vilzak-Shollar and Vincenzo Celli, joined the Original Ballet Russe within a year of arriving in New York, and, along with her husband, former premier danseur Roman Jasinski, would go on to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1948.
Returning to the United States in the early ’50s, the Miami, Okla.-born Larkin-Jasinski and her husband went on to create the Tulsa Ballet Theatre. Tulsa Ballet today produces five productions annually ” in addition to “The Nutcracker” ” and reaches over 55,000 individuals every season. Joining the ranks of her fellow American Indian ballerinas, Larkin-Jasinski was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1978 and named Outstanding Indian by the Council of American Indians in 1988.
Mesmerized by a 1937 performance by Russian ballet dancer/choreographer Leonide Massine, Hightower found herself studying under the choreographer in Monte Carlo with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo within a year’s time. She relocated with the company to New York City in 1941 following the beginning of World War II. Hightower quickly saw her spotlight shine brightly in the Big Apple after attaining critical acclaim for her title role in the Original Ballet Russe’s 1947 rendition of “Giselle” at the Metropolitan Opera House.
After retiring from the stage in 1962, Hightower opened the Centre de Danse Classique in her adopted hometown of Cannes. The Centre is now ranked as one of Europe’s leading ballet schools.
Hightower’s career also included many directorial efforts, with her most notable accomplishments being her work with Marseilles Ballet from 1969-1972 and the Paris Opera Ballet from 1980-1983.
Maria Tallchief is quoted as having said, “New ideas are essential, but we must retain respect for the art of ballet ” and that means the artist, too ” or else it is no longer an art form.”
It is this sentiment, this deep respect for her roots, that 13-year-old Amy Mullican credits with keeping her “en avant,” a ballet term meaning “moving forward,” as both a dancer and an American Indian.
“My grandmother wanted to be a ballerina around the same time that the five were famous, but she didn’t have that opportunity,” Mullican said. “Knowing what the (five ballerinas) were able to do brings me great pride as a dancer.”
Mullican, from Oklahoma City, has been studying under Daphne Tardibono, who is also of Native American ancestry, for the past seven years. Mullican credits the inspiration of the five and the support of the Chickasaw Nation for giving her the courage to pursue her dreams.
It is, in fact, a scholarship from the Chickasaw Nation that has made her last three years of dance especially significant. Progressing in her ballet to dancing on point, Mullican and her family know her success is a direct by-product of the support she receives.
For Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, his organization’s support of those youth pursuing careers in the fine arts is something to be extremely passionate about.
“We are supporting Amy and many other Chickasaws in the pursuit of their dreams because we believe one the most important things we can do is offer opportunities for individuals to pursue their dreams,” Anoatubby said.
“Art has always been an important part of Chickasaw culture. Many of the individuals involved in our arts programs are incorporating Chickasaw culture and heritage into the fine arts in a way that advances both our culture and the classical arts.”
Mullican, who danced in 2007’s Oklahoma Centennial Celebration and hopes to one day dance on Broadway, said the efforts of her Native American community to raise funds for her dance studies have not only changed the way she looks at her dance, but changed the way that she looks at her heritage as well.
“It makes me feel good to know that the Chickasaw nation supports me,” Mullican said. “It makes me proud to be a Chickasaw.”
Eleven-year-old Tashina Goodbear, a contemporary, lyrical, jazz and Indian scarf dancer of Ponca/Cheyenne/Choctaw ancestry, credits the legacy of Maria Tallchief as her lure into dance. Studying under Annette Hobie and Dannell Becerra, both from Choctaw ancestry, Goodbear, of Oklahoma City, has gone on to win and place in numerous dance competitions over the last six years.
Goodbear said it is what Tallchief and her classically trained counterparts did off the dance floor that has inspired her life the most.
“If I could meet Maria Tallchief, I would tell her how much she has inspired my life. Because of her, I now know that nobody can ever put me down (as a dancer) because I’m Native American.”
For Anoatubby, it is the integration of culture and talent that made the five ballerinas so unique. The conspicuous inclusion of their Native American heritage that Goodbear refers to is what the governor of one of state’s most prominent Indian nations credits with ultimately being their greatest allure.
“These five Native American ballerinas provide a great example that each of us can embrace other cultures while remaining true to our own heritage. That attitude, which is shared by man, is one of the things which has made this a great state and will serve us well for generations to come.”
Brittany Ransom, of Choctaw ancestry, also studies under Becerra and Hobie, who have nearly 60 years of dance experience between them. The Deer Creek High School freshman considers bearing the torch of the ballerinas to be a privilege.
With more than 12 years of formal dance instruction, 15-year-old Ransom is a multi award-winning contemporary, lyrical, jazz and tap dancer who hopes to one day create a dance legacy of her own. Carrying forward the mantra that all of Hobie and Becerra’s pupils know by heart, “I can, I will, I am,” Ransom said that just knowing the five ballerinas went before her and mastered their craft gave her the courage to go after her dreams as well.
“What they (the five ballerinas) achieved was great. It gave me someone to look up to as a child, and if I could speak with them I would thank them for making it easier for other generations to pursue careers in dance,” Ransom said.
SET IN STONE
Mullican, Goodbear and Ransom are just a few of the thousands of ballerina hopefuls inspired by the five American Indian ballerinas throughout the years. In an effort to immortalize their rich legacy, Oklahoma honored the five with a mural, known as the “Flight of Spirit,” in the Capitol building in November 1991.
“I’m almost 80 years old and I started dancing when I was 3,” said Yvonne Chouteau-Terekhov, now living in Oklahoma City. “We have many aspiring ballerinas these days, which wasn’t the case when I was growing up.
“I would tell the next generation of dancers that dancing is very hard work, but it’s more than worth it. It’s worth it because you get to pass it on, and passing it on is what art is all about.”
For those who attended the mural’s unveiling, it became clear that the legacy of the five American Indian ballerinas could never be confined to the walls of the Capitol building, nor even contained within the four borders of Oklahoma. The legacy of these amazing women belonged to America first, and then to the world.
“We have concrete, material examples of the legacy they leave us, specifically in the ‘Flight of Spirit,’ a tribute to the five ballerinas by Chickasaw artist Mike Larsen,” Tate said.
“I believe that Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief leave as their legacy that intangible idea known as the American Dream. If you study, work hard and do your best, you can grow up to be anything you want to be.” “Fran L. Thomas