Maria Tallchief

15 Apr

The death of Maria Tallchief with the number of comments about her on Facebook as well as Jack Anderson’s wonderful obituary in the New York Times reminded me of a Sunday in Los Angeles some time between 1948 and 1950 when I was “up close and personal” with Maria Tallchief and George Balanchine.  That is to say, they inhabited a studio where I took Sunday classes.

While I attended college, I used to take the red line into Los Angeles on a Sunday morning, transfer to another bus out West 6th Street to a stop at a corner where there was an elaborate set of pseudo-Moorish buildings with two second story turrets.  I don’t remember whether the ground floor was occupied by a drug or a chain grocery store, but one had to go around the corner where there was a space with stairs leading upward left and right with some sort of identifying space in the middle above the concrete pavement between the two sets of stairs.  The location was not littered, but it did look unkempt.  I vaguely remember the stairwell was standard grunge.  As I climbed the right hand set of stairs, I was invariably conscious of relative dryness, the Los Angeles sunshine, and its being exaggerated by city cement.  It struck me as anomalous for classical ballet pursuits, both of the time and the technique.

I wish I could remember what the door was like, but music was wafting from behind Miss Frey’s studio door.  Rozelle Frey had been a member of Anna Pavlova’s company; for how long I don’t know and I know of no source regarding the history of her training.  I was told an injury had shortened her career.  When I met her she was visibly blind in one eye, with slender legs and arms, but quite a matronly torso in front of a wonderfully erect back.  She manicured her nails with a sort of pink or mauve blush, thick, and a bit haphazardly applied, but their use was authoritatively graceful along with a chin raised from her back and neck to emphasize the final position students should attain in a barre exercise.

As I opened the door, dancers were moving diagonally across the space from upon stage right where the barres ran the length of the floor.  Three of them and my eyes popped, recognizing Natalia Clare and Oleg Tupine whom I had seen that season with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  The third, youthful, dark haired and olive-skinned, I heard called “Nicky,” – Nicolas Magallanes.  In front of me almost like a narrow corridor’s distance was a small man calling allegro combinations; it was George Balanchine. At Miss Frey’s side, looking at either photos or a picture book, was Maria Tallchief, making periodic comments to Miss Frey.

The class concluded shortly after my arrival and the four dancers and Balanchine departed.  After changing and en route to the barre Miss Frey announced that she gave them dinner the night before and that Balanchine had complimented her on her cooking.

I don’t remember making any remarks other than murmuring admiration.  But even in my pre-21 country naivete, her disclosure floored me.  Lacking running water, Miss Frey had to go to the common lavatory at the landing between the two sides of the second floor  for water, anything for cooking, dish washing, laundry or daily personal rituals.  Her kitchen consisted of a space tucked behind curtains on lines strung across part of the alcove where her record machine, dining table, chairs and some form of cot  resided, her clothes sequestered in a nook behind another curtain.  There may have been some cabinets on the wall near her hot plate and a small refrigerator obscured by yet another curtain.  As living conditions, to say nothing of entertaining, it sticks in my memory of the quiet steel of this woman surviving in the uncertain dance climate of the late  ‘Forties and early ‘Fifties in Southern California.

My study with Rozelle Frey was never extensive nor intensive.  College claimed my wavering focus; the travel expense as well as classes, plus my late start and unfashionable body type conspired to limit any impulse to throw fiscal prudence to the wind for a career so marginal at the time.  Miss Frey, who counted Mia Slavenska among students, was still the real deal.  I learned, source unremembered, that she had taught Maria and Marjorie Tallchief for two years as their studies moved from Ernest Belcher before turning to Bronislava Nijinska, and Nijinska’s connections.  Since I have not read the Tallchief biography, I don’t know whether Miss Frey was included in its pages.  In the accounts I have read, Nijinska seems to receive the major credit for the training of the Tallchief sisters.  Certainly Miss Frey never seemed to have enjoyed the string of students any acknowledgement might have fostered.

Janet Collins biography mentions Miss Frey in the context of Slavenska’s teaching at Miss Frey’ s studio and there is a Google photograph of Miss Frey pictured with Lois Ellyn, one of her students who danced as a soloist in Mia Slavenska’s short-lived ensemble.

Not altogether a complimentary reflection on the Tallchief career and modus operendi; but it’s truthful; it might have been otherwise.

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