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Ballet legend Maria Tallchief dies at 88

April 12, 2013 at 2:36 PM ET

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American ballerina Maria Tallchief pictured in New York City in 945.

Ballerina Maria Tallchief, whose legendary rise in the New York City Ballet led her to become the muse — and briefly the wife — of choreographer George Balanchine, has died at the age of 88. She died Thursday, her daughter confirmed in a statement Friday. 

No cause of death was released, although she had suffered complications from a hip she broke in December, the Washington Post reported, citing Kenneth von Heidecke, founder of the Chicago Festival Ballet.

Tallchief was a prima ballerina whose artistic and technical abilities earned her international acclaim. She was born Jan. 24, 1925 on an Oklahoma Indian reservation, where her father had served as chief in the Osage Nation, and made her way north to what would become the New York City Ballet. She became one of the first American ballerinas in a field that was dominated at that time by European dancers.

Tallchief's reputation for her power, musicality and technical precision earned her Balanchine's attention, and she originated the lead role in his productions of “Firebird” in 1949, Swan Lake in 1951 and numerous other works, including his 1954 staging of “The Nutcracker,” in which she played the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tallchief was married to Balanchine for six years, from 1946 to 1952.

"My mother was a ballet legend, who was proud of her Osage heritage. Her dynamic presence lit up the room,” Tallchief's daughter, poet Elise Paschen, said in a statement. “I will miss her passion, commitment to her art and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did.”

Once Tallchief retired in 1965, she began teaching. She was the ballet director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for most of the 1970s. In 1981, she founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she served as co-artistic director until it closed six years later.

In 1996, the Kennedy Center honored Tallchief for her contributions to the arts.

In addition to her daughter, Tallchief also is survived by two grandchildren and her sister, another noted ballerina, Marjorie Tallchief.

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