1950s Hollywood Biblical fashion: Virginia Mayo in The Silver Chalice (1954).
Sophia Loren eyeballs Jayne Mansfield.
Balanchine Goddess VERA ZORINA in I Was An Adventuress (1940); George Balanchine on left.
1950s Hollywood Biblical fashion: Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments (1956).
1950s Hollywood Biblical Fashion: Lana Turner in The Prodigal (1955).
1950s Hollywood Biblical fashion: Rita Hayworth in Salome (1953).
Cary Grant and canine friend studying a script.
1950s Hollywood Biblical fashion: Susan Hayward in David and Bathsheba (1951).
1950s Hollywood Biblical fashion: Patricia Laffan in Quo Vadis (1951)
The Four Temperaments
Rehearsing with George Balanchine
Maria Tallchief wasn’t George Balanchine’s first ballerina muse, but she was the first ballerina of the New York City Ballet. Her triumph in the title role of Balanchine’s version of The Firebird established his company, choreography, and dancers in the first rank. In some rare amateur silent footage that caught a bit of her legendary performance, you can see what must have left spectators marveling. She’s first seen as the wild, terrified, supernatural bird caught by the Prince and trying to escape. As her partner spins her round, she leans back, balanced on one pointe, and stretches out her limbs to their extremes; she reminds you, strangely, of a starfish. Then she allows her partner to lower her to the floor, her hips and knees bending and twisting in space as she sinks and rises, as if she’s discovered a new, more luxuriantly sensual way to move. She ends by leaning against him, an arm raised like a victory salute; and you see a wild creature becoming soft, humanized, feminine, become, in effect, a woman.
No doubt it was this exotic yet womanly quality of Tallchief’s to which Balanchine responded. It was on her that he created his versions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker: the fragile yet queenly Odette and the delicately regal Sugarplum Fairy, two characters who inhabit both earthly and supernatural realms. For American audiences, there must also have been the thrill of watching an American ballerina re-create, in neo-classical style, these signpost roles of the classical ballerina repertory, which would have been once the possession of European and Russian dancers. And Tallchief was American to the core. The Oklahoma-born daughter of an Osage Native American, Tallchief broke barriers in becoming the prima ballerina of the one of the greatest of classical dance companies. She defined American ballet and ballet dancers to her generation; and, later becoming a noted teacher and director, passed on that definition to younger American dancers.
I never saw Tallchief dance onstage, but I did once see her, some years ago, in a lecture-demonstration at the “Works in Progress” series at the Guggenheim Museum. She was coaching two NYCB dancers in a pas de deux from one of her signature ballets that Balanchine created on her, Le Baiser de la Fee. Tallchief didn’t merely stand by and give advice; she re-enacted the ballet, re-lived it, lunging, arching, stretching, her arms raised to embrace the air, her face taut with an emotion that she must have felt when she first learned the piece. You were no longer aware of the two younger dancers, of the platform they stood on, nor of the viewers and the auditorium. There was only Tallchief, center stage, where she belonged, looking as if she had found a new way to move all over again.