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Ballerinas Of The Wild West

On December 16th, 1872, The Scouts of the Prairie premiered in Chicago. It was the first stage western, and it made its titular stars, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro, two of the most famous men in the country. But that first night, and for many performances that followed, it wasn't a sure thing that customers would pay to see a western play or western scouts at all. That's why the show's writer and general manager Ned Buntline hired a bona fide sensation to star as the play's female lead.

Giuseppina Morlacchi in her stage costume as Dove Eye in The Scouts of the Prairie.

Giuseppina Morlacchi, sometimes called "The Peerless" Morlacchi, was an Italian prima ballerina who had starred in the greatest ballets on the greatest stages in the best ballet companies in the world. Trained at the legendary La Scala in her hometown of Milan, Italy, she toured throughout Europe, with periods spent in Paris, Berlin, Lisboa, London, and Rome. She was lured to America by the then outrageous guaranteed salary of $500 a night, brought to New York on the fastest ship ever to sail the Atlantic, and her legs were insured for the exorbitant sum of $100,000 (over $1.5 million in 2020) with Lloyd’s of London. She caused a sensation in Puritan New England when she introduced the cancan to America in 1868, though she was so respected and beloved that criticism was reserved for the dance and never the dancer, who even her worst critics called "an 'artiste' such as had rarely, if ever, been seen in America."

On stage, Morlacchi played the part of Dove Eye, who was actually the title character in the dime novel Buntline had released earlier in the year and based much of his play upon. If its hard to imagine a ballerina dancing on her toes while dressed as a "Indian Princess," once again any criticism was reserved for Buntline as the show's author, and never Giuseppina herself.

In 1949, 77 years after a prima ballerina played the role of a Native American, a Native American became a prima ballerina. Ki He Kah Stah Tsa, known as Maria Tallchief, was an Osage ballerina born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, in 1925. Maria's younger sister, Marjorie, was born the following year, and like her sister studied dance and became one of the most accomplished ballerinas in the world. Marjorie danced with the Original Ballet Russe, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, and the Chicago Opera Ballet.

Marjorie Tallchief

In 1957, she joined the Paris Opéra Ballet, the first American ever to become première danseuse étoile, the highest rank in the legendary company. The next year she became the first American ballerina since World War II to perform in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. Marjorie danced for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as French President De Gaulle. Tallchief was prima ballerina with New York's Harkness Ballet from 1964 until 1966, when she retired from the stage. Much like Giuseppina Morlacchi after her own retirement, Tallchief dedicated her life after retirement to education, sharing her knowledge and her passion with the next generation of aspiring ballerinas.

Marjorie Tallchief passed away on November 30, 2021, at the age of 95. She was the last surviving member of the "Five Moons," five Native American dancers from Oklahoma who took the international ballet world by storm in the 20th century. Along with Marjorie Tallchief, the Five Moons included her sister, Maria, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin, and Rosella Hightower. The Five Moons were honored in their native Oklahoma in 1991 with a painting in the state capital rotunda.

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating with the Five Moons. From left: Moscelyne Larkin, Marjorie Tallchief, Maria Tallchief, Rosella Hightower and Yvonne Chouteau.

Within a generation of prima ballerina Morlacchi's debut as Dove Eye in 1872, life had imitated art in a more spectacular way than any novelist could have imagined. Five Native American women had become the greatest dancers in the world.

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