Native Village Youth and Education News

January 1, 2009 Issue 193 Volume 4

Chouteau remembers Hightower




"Flight of Spirit"
Mike Larsen, artist

Oklahoma City, OK: Seventy years have passed since Yvonne Chouteau, a budding ballerina, first met a fellow Oklahoman who had moved to Kansas City, Mo., and was studying with a noted ballet instructor. Chouteau was only nine years old, but knew then that 18-year-old Rosella Hightower was destined to become one of the great ballerinas of her generation.

"I can't say quite enough about this woman,'' Chouteau said during a recent interview at her Oklahoma City home. "... To me, what is so awe-inspiring about her _ she was a real person, kind and gentle.

"Nothing stuck up about her, even though she's one of the great ballerinas, and I will say in the world, not just Oklahoma or the United States but all over, especially Europe.''

Hightower died Nov. 4 at her home in Cannes, France. She was 88.

Together, she, Chouteau, Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief and Moscelyne Larkin became known as the "American Indian ballerinas,'' five Oklahoma natives of American Indian descent who rose to prominence in the ballet world from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Rosella Hightower

  Moscelyne Larkin Yvonne Chouteau Maria Tallchiefh Marjorie Tallchief  

Hightower was born Jan. 20, 1920, to Charles and Eula May Hightower in Durwood, a small community southeast of Ardmore in southern Oklahoma. Charles Hightower, of Choctaw descent, moved the family to Kansas City, where eventually his daughter would develop her interest in dance under the tutelage of Dorothy Perkins.

After meeting as youngsters, the paths of Chouteau and Hightower would cross again, professionally and personally.

Following a trip to France in 1937, Hightower became a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Maria Tallchief and Chouteau also danced. Chouteau recalled the support she received from Hightower when she became the youngest member of the prestigious ballet company.

"She would cry with me because I was so homesick. I was only 14 when I joined,'' Chouteau said.

Years later, after Hightower had become the principal dancer for the Marquis George de Cuevas Ballet, Chouteau caught up with her while on vacation in South America, where Chouteau's husband, Miguel Terekhov, a fellow Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer, grew up.

"... she would say, 'Oh, Yvonne, Miguel. How happy I am to see you.' Nothing, you know, hoity-toity about her, no. She was down to earth, a real person.

"It's hard when you're famous because sometimes you sort of isolate yourself, a lot of the stars I knew did. Not Rosella ... It just brings the tears to your eyes. She was really lovely.''

Chouteau said she is most-often asked why Oklahoma was able to produce five women who went on to become great ballerinas.

"I don't know. I think it might have been ... because of the Indian blood ...,'' she said.

Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, agreed. He theorized that Native Americans who were born in the first half of the 20th century or became famous during that period entertainer Will Rogers, athlete Jim Thorpe, artist Allan Houser and writer N. Scott Momaday were far enough removed from the hardships faced by many tribes in the 19th century but still firmly rooted in their traditional culture.

"Out of that trauma, out of that assault, traditional culture survived and it can be seen in their expressions of art, business, politics,'' Blackburn said. ``These five Indian ballerinas were taking their Indian culture that was so strong and so new and blending it with other cultures _ Russian ballet and modern dance in New York City. I can say this probably will never happen again.''

Lili Cockerille Livingston, whose "American Indian Ballerinas'' chronicled the lives of the Native American ballerinas, said the women probably would've been famous no matter where they were born.

"I don't mean Oklahoma didn't have a part in it,'' Livingston said from her home in the Tulsa area. "It shaped them, helped to teach them 'you work hard and do what you could with what you had. They also had a certain connection with the earth itself.''

Chouteau said although both danced with the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she only recalled them performing together in 1967, when Tulsa Ballet Theatre hosted the second Oklahoma Ballerina Festival in honor of the 60th anniversary of statehood.

The event's centerpiece was a performance of ``The Four Moons," a work emphasizing the women's Native American heritage but not all of the women attended.

Hightower represented the Choctaws, Chouteau represented the Cherokee, Marjorie Tallchief represented the Osage and the Shawnee was represented by Larkin, who along with her husband, Roman Jasinski, founded the Tulsa Ballet.

Maria Tallchief, considered America's greatest prima ballerina, was not there.

Efforts to reach Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief and Larkin for comment about Hightower were unsuccessful.
In 1991, the mural, "Flight of Spirit,'' by Mike Larsen was dedicated to the women's contributions. The work, which hangs in the state Capitol rotunda, shows five adult ballerinas dancing in front of and two smaller ballerinas flanking a group of Native Americans as a flock of geese fly overhead.

Six years later, Chouteau saw Hightower for the last time, when all five ballerinas gathered at the state Capitol to be honored as official Oklahoma Treasures.

"Can you tell which one is her?'' Chouteau asked as she held a framed photograph of the women at the 1997 event, pointing to Hightower, Larkin and the Tallchief sisters.

"I treasure that picture. I guess that belongs in a gallery somewhere,'' she said. "It won't be too much longer that the five of us will have gone, dancing up in the clouds.

"... Rosie was a decade ahead of us. As you know, she has left us already. ... I know she's dancing. She'll probably welcome us there as we come pas de bourre-ing in.''


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