Five Moons Ballerinas Continue To Inspire Dancers, Native Americans To This Day

by Amy Martinez Reynolds
This mural was painted in honor of the Five Moon Ballerinas and is on display at the Oklahoma State Capitol. The mural was painted by Mike Larkson and it is titled “Flight of the Spirit” (ENN/Amy Martinez-Reynolds).

Dance has long been a part of the cultures of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes, but it took five Oklahoma-born dancers to share this with the world.

Unrepresented Native American dancers share their love of dance through their traditions and with Ballet. Their stories are severely unknown, but are now being more recognized through dancers around America.

Native American dancers Maria Tallchief, Majorie Tallchief, Moscelyne Larkin, Yvonne Chouteau, and Rosella Hightower gained international recognition during the 20th century. They sparked inspiration in dancers across the U.S. and continue to inspire them today.

The 5 Moon Ballerinas met with a traveling company called Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The youngest out of the five dancers was Yvonne Chouteau, joining when she was only 14-years-old. 

These dancers were known for their grit and determination and inspired dancers all around America. “I think a lot of people don’t know about them,” said Jessie Dolezel, director of Ascend Dance Studio in Midwest City. Native American dancers weren’t common before The Five Moon Ballerinas, she said, adding: “Not any if ever. They were the first ones, that’s why they’re such a big deal.”

She said the five accomplished something dear to them: sharing the gift of the dance and their cultures with the world. 

“They wanted to share this gift with people,” Dolezel said. Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin, and Maria Tallchief founded schools of dance and dance companies in Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa, and Chicago. The group also performed around the world, on some of its biggest dance stages, from New York City to Monte Carlo. 

Their importance to dance and to Oklahoma history can’t be overstated. They even adorn the Oklahoma State Capitol. Chickasaw artist Mike Larsen painted a mural depicting the Five Moons, entitled Flight of Spirit. The mural hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. In Tulsa, there are statues dedicated to the Five Moons. 

Maria Tallchief

Maria was born on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Nation. She started dancing at the age of three with her sister, Majorie. When Tallchief was 17, she moved to New York City to pursue her dancing dreams. She joined the famed Ballet Russe Monte Carlo as an apprentice and quickly climbed the ranks to lead roles. One of Tallchief’s best-known roles was the Sugar Plum Fairy which she originated in The Nutcracker and Firebird. She retired from dancing in 1966 and moved to Chicago with her husband, Pashen. There, she was the director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera Ballet from 1973 to 1979, and Chicago City Ballet from 1980 to 1987. She stayed in Chicago until she passed on April 11, 2013. She received the Washington Press Women of the Year Award and the Annual Dance Magazine Award twice. The Oklahoma Legislature declared June 29 as Maria Tallchief Day in 1953. The Osage tribe called her Princess Wa-Xthe-Thonba which means “Woman of Two Standards.” She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996. She was involved in the America for Indian Opportunity and directed the Indian Council Fire Achievement Award.

Majorie Tallchief

Marjorie Tallchief was born on October 19, 1927, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Nation. Tallchief and her sister, Maria, began dancing as children and later studied with Bronislava Nijinska and David Lichine. Tallchief began her professional career in 1944 with the American Ballet Theatre. She left in 1946 to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Tallchief danced for companies like the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas from 1948 to 1955, Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet as a guest artist from 1958 to 1962, and the Harkness Ballet as a prima ballerina from 1964 to 1966. Her most famous leading roles were in Night Shadow in 1950, Annabel Lee in 1951, Idylle in 1954, Romeo and Juliet in 1955, and Giselle in 1957. She was the first American Indian to become premiere danseuse etoile in the Paris Opera. Tallchief’s classical and contemporary roles made her one of the most versatile ballet dancers during the 20th century. She performed for many heads of state like John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, and Lyndon B. Johnson In November 1991, Tallchief was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The University of Oklahoma gave her a distinguished service award in May 1992. She died November 30, 2021, in Delray Beach, Florida.

Moscelyne Larkin

Moscelyne Larkin was born on January 14, 1925, in Miami, Oklahoma. Her father, Ruben Larkin, was Shawnee-Peoria Indian. Her mother, Eva Matlagova-Larkin, a young dancer from Russia, trained her in ballet until her mid-teens. She traveled to New York to study under such artists as Mikhail Mordkin, Anatole Vilzak-Shollar, and Vincenzo Celli. Larkin joined the Original Ballet Russe at age 15. She also is among the youngest dancers to join a professional company, first as a soloist and then as a ballerina touring throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. And on multiple occasions, she was the premier ballerina at Radio City Music Hall.  On December 24, 1943, Larkin and Jasinski married in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They danced together as a couple on tour throughout WWII. The couple continued dancing after WWII. “They went into people’s homes, a child that had special needs and was wheelchair bound and wasn’t able to dance, but just loved music and loved the Jasinskis,” Dolezel said, “They especially had a heart for bringing dance back to their community.” She and her husband, Jasinski, opened the Tulsa Civic Ballet and School, now known as the Tulsa Ballet Theatre. She taught at the University of Tulsa. She stayed in Tulsa until she passed on April 25, 2012. She was honored at the Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas Festival in 1957 and 1967, where she performed with the other three American Indian ballerinas in Oklahoma. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1978. She received the Dance Magazine award in 1988. She was named Outstanding Indian by the Council of American Indians in 1976. She served on the dance advisory panel for the State Arts Council and she introduced dance into Tulsa’s public schools.

Yvonne Chouteau

Yvonne Chouteau was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in Vinita, Oklahoma. Her tribe, the Shawnee Tribe, was part of the Cherokee Nation but is now independent. Chouteau was known to be a kind soul. “When I met Yvonne Chouteau at OU, she was just a very kind soul and had a soft sweet personality,” Jessie Dolezel, director of Ascend Dance Studio, said. In 1943, at age 14, Chouteau joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She is one of the youngest dancers ever to be accepted into a professional company. She worked with renowned choreographers like George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, and Bronislav Nijinska. Some of her most famous roles include the Glove Seller in Gaite Parisienne, Giselle, The Nutcracker, Les Sylphide, Pas de Quatre, and Romeo and Juliet. In 1960, she and her husband, Terekhov, became artists in residence at the University of Oklahoma. In 1963, they created the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, now known as Oklahoma City Ballet. From 1932 to 1941 she led every major parade in Oklahoma, including her first, the Silver Anniversary Statehood Day parade, during which she was named “Daughter of Oklahoma, Good Will Ambassadress to the World at Large.” In 1947, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame at the age of 18, which is the youngest person to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. In that same year, she was inducted into the International Who’s Who. In 1963, Women in Journalism named her Outstanding Oklahoma Woman, and American Women in Radio and Television named her Woman of the Year. In 1964, the University of Oklahoma’s Theta Sigma Phi named her Outstanding Faculty of 1964. The Soroptimist Club of Oklahoma City named her Outstanding Woman of Oklahoma for 1970. Chouteau died on January 24, 2016, in Oklahoma City..

Rosella Hightower

Rosella Hightower was born in Durwood, Oklahoma, on January 30, 1920. She was part of the Choctaw Nation. In 1938,  Hightower began her professional career. She has since performed with several companies, including Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1938–41), Ballet Theatre (1941–45), Original Ballet Russe (1945–47), Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas (1947–53 and 1957–62), and American Ballet Theatre (1955–57). In 1962 she founded the Center for Classical Dance, a school in Cannes, France, modeled after her ideas of multidisciplinary training. She was appointed director of the Marseilles Opera Ballet (Marseilles, France, 1969–72), and then of Ballet de Nancy (France, 1975–78). In 1981, she became the first American director of the Ballet of Paris Opera. In 2001, Hightower transferred the directorship of her school to Moniques Loudieres, a former student and principal dancer. She was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s premier honor, in 1975. She was also depicted in November 1991 in the mural Flight of Spirit by Mike Larsen, which depicts Oklahoma’s five Indian ballerinas. The mural is on display in the Great Rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol. During Rosella Hightower’s career, she performed worldwide and is generally considered an aristocrat of ballet dancing. She died on November 4, 2008, in Cannes, France.

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