Native American ballerinas

The University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance is celebrating five Native American ballerinas with a multi-year festival. (Photo Provided)

It may be better known in Europe and the large cities of North America than it is here in Oklahoma that five of the world’s finest 20th century prima ballerinas originated on red dirt. Certainly the Cherokee, Choctaw, Osage, Shawnee and Shawnee-Peoria peoples are aware of these women because they rose from their nations.

The University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance is commemorating the grandeur of their achievements with the Five Moons Dance Festival on the Norman campus. Originally scheduled for this year, it has been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. The name of the festival reflects a ballet titled “The Four Moons” by Cherokee composer Louis Ballard Sr. that was performed at the “Second Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festival” in 1967.

The five ballet luminaries honored are Yvonne Chouteau (1929-2016, Shawnee-Cherokee), Rosella Hightower (1920-2008, Choctaw), Moscelyne Larkin (1925-2012, Shawnee-Peoria), Maria Tallchief (1925-2013, Osage) and Marjorie Tallchief (Osage).

OU School of Dance assistant professor Leslie Kraus is among the festival’s organizers. She is relatively new to Oklahoma with considerable professional dance experience as a performer and choreographer on both coasts.

“My goal over the past year has been to find different choreographers that fit the mission of the Five Moons Festival,” Kraus said. “It has been an incredible learning experience about the Native American nations and I’m still quite in the thick of it. Prior to moving here I was not even aware of these ballerinas. I have received an incredible history lesson reading about these women. I teach lecture courses and have been bringing Native dance into them because there’s access here that there’s not in the other places I’ve lived.”

Stefanie Batten Bland is an internationally celebrated choreographic artist and artistic director of Company SBB based in New York City. She was selected as the festival’s guest choreographer and will present an original work.

“Bland will be bringing a work that she has been developing with some American ballet theater dancers,” Kraus said. “That’s going to be showcased and performed at the festival. It’s just been created and completed recently. Bland will be coming here and working with some of our students. That process will be taking place over a week. She is an exciting choreographer who is doing a lot of experimental work on topical subjects. It will be in a different realm from classical ballet language. Bland tackles issues like climate change and has redone the story of ‘Look Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (inspired by 1967 film ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’) that she made into a dance piece. Her work is really arresting and potently mysterious. There’s an intriguing delivery that’s not just handed to you. Also, Bland has a direct professional ballet world link to one of the Five Moons’ ballerinas.”

The festival will also have panel discussions through a historical lenses. Women in leadership in the studio, classroom, office and making art will be a focus.

“These five women were extraordinary and unusual when they rose up in the dance world,” Kraus said. “We want to concentrate on the future of getting female voices from under-represented populations on stage. The Five Moons were exactly that. There’s always the question, where are the women choreographers and how to make opportunities more available for them.”

Yvonne Chouteau established OU’s “Department of Dance” in 1960 along with her spouse Miguel Terekhov. She also founded the Oklahoma Civic Ballet in 1963.

“Chouteau brought an illustrious career back to the region she was from when coming to OU,” Kraus said. “There’s still a sense of her presence here in the quality and seriousness of the School of Dance.”

The festival will pay special attention to the Tallchief sisters of the Osage nation. Marjorie resides in Boca Raton, Florida and will celebrate her 94th birthday in October.

“Each year we will focus on a different ballerina,” Kraus said. “Along with the specific nation that she is a part of. Through that lenses design elements and some choices being made are honoring that specific ballerina’s life and the components going into her life.”

There will be many types of dancers on stage at the festival.

“There will be multiple performances happening in that one show,” Kraus said. “That will be extremely exciting.”

More information about the festival can be found at dance.ou.edu/fivemoonsfest/.

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