Cherokee ballerinas to perform reimagined Four Moons in Washington, D.C.

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Maria Tallchief (Osage) and Nicholas Magallanes in “The Nutcracker,” 1954. Photo: Walter E. Owen (CC0).

TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma—On April 8 from 2:00–4:00 pm, Encore! Performing Society will present a preview of their reimagined version of Four Moons at the Armory in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The original Four Moons ballet was created in 1967 by and for the Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas, a group of five ballerinas who were extremely successful in the 1940s. The preview is a chance for the local community to see the dance before it is performed April 13 to 15 (two performances each day) during Cherokee Days at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas – Maria Tallchief (Osage), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee Tribe), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw), and Moscelyne Larkin (Eastern Shawnee-Peoria) – paved the way for Americans in ballet at a time when it was considered an art form only for Russians and Europeans, particularly Russians. Encore! director Elena Gladkova-Huffman, who is originally from Volgograd, Russia, said she had always known about the Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas because they were internationally famous but also because most of them at one time or another were married to famous Russian dancers – some of whom helped choreograph the original Four Moons.

Dancers from Encore! Performing Society prepare to take a bow following a 2016 performance of Four Moons. Photo courtesy of Encore! Performing Society Facebook page.

Gladkova-Huffman conceived of the idea to reimagine Four Moons shortly after she moved to Tahlequah, as a way to give back to her community. Gladkova-Huffman, who had been a ballerina in her home country, spent time in the United States as a foreign exchange student in high school. She later married a man from Tahlequah and settled there, where she worked as a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology before starting her dance school and Encore! Performance Society. The organization is governed by a primarily Cherokee board, and most of the dancers are also Cherokee. (In fact, ten of the twelve dancers performing Four Moons ballet are Cherokee.)

Though the international media covered the opening of the original Four Moons in Oklahoma, somehow no full video of it has surfaced. Gladkova-Huffman watched the snippets of video that are available, along with video of later performances done by other dancers (which had been changed from the original), and she visited the Tulsa Ballet archives to see costumes from earlier productions. She got permission from the estate of Quapaw-Cherokee composer Louis Ballard to use the music he had composed for the original, but she said her version is a completely reimagined one.

The original was performed by extremely successful, professional dancers while Gladkova-Huffman’s version is performed by younger dancers, just preparing to move on to college or their early dance careers. While the original ballet focused on solos depicting each dancer’s tribal history, Gladkova-Huffman’s focuses on the history of the Ballerinas themselves.

“My idea was to show how much the ballerinas had to sacrifice in order to reach the heights of their training and their careers that they achieved during their lifetimes,” Gladkova-Huffman said. “For example, Yvonne Chouteau was merely 12 when she had to move away from her parents and start performing and training with a ballet company that was touring Europe, so that’s quite a drastic change.”

Gladkova-Huffman described the structure of her Four Moons.

“It starts off by showing six little girls dancing together,” the choreographer said. “As they dance together, one of them separates and leaves, and she is first seen with her peers, and then she moves away. Then the older ballerinas dance – the pre-professional girls, some of them are auditioning for companies and others are moving on to college next year to dance programs. So this little girl kind of flows through that piece showing how she was first incorporated as a young child into the world of this touring company where you had to watch the bigger dancers take classes, do rehearsals, and follow through. And so every variation that we have has a youngster in it and then an older dancer, kind of like a grown-up version of themselves. And then they all finish together with the little girls wearing traditional attire from the tribes and the big girls dancing in their adapted ballet clothing.”

Like the original Four Moons, Gladkova-Huffman’s version uses ballet costumes designed in tribute to each Ballerina’s heritage, but she changed them from the original because she knew her dancers would be performing before their own community — a community whose values she has gotten to know over her many years as part of it.

“We went to Tulsa Ballet archives, and I saw the costumes and talked to the [archivist]who keeps track of them and knows how they came to us, but they were a little on the short side for our purposes,” she said. “I wanted it to be viewed by people in the older generation and any Native people. They wore long dresses as their native style, and [the original tunic costumes]barely cover your rear. I’m [a Russian choreographer]telling this story here in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. I want to be so careful, culturally. I mean, I’m a Russian, and I know how to dance and I know how to choreograph well, but it takes a little more than just that.”

She worked with her seamstress, Dana Hume, to design ballet costumes that, like the originals, reflect the differences among the Ballerinas’ tribes.

Ribbon work from the re-imagined Four Moons costumes. Photo courtesy of Encore! Performing Society Facebook page.

“The tunic itself is very simple. It’s the ribbon work on it that makes it complicated and recognizable, hopefully,” she said. “That kind of shows that they recognize where they came from and they remember their history and their heritage always, yet they evolved into the traditional ballet roles.”

Gladkova-Huffman makes sure her dancers understand where Four Moons began.

“I actually make them research [the ballerina they portray], and during the rehearsal process, we have a day when they bring in their research projects and we show videos and pictures…not just the ones that we use in the ballet, because during the ballet, after the initial group variations are danced together, when we go into each individual ballerina, preceding the dance there are snippets of video footage with a little bit of an interview and a little bit of them dancing. In the interviews, some of them talk about their training, their best years on stage, how they missed their families, and then there is dancing, so the audience gets the connection with the real person.”

The Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas began a ballet legacy in Oklahoma that continues today with dancers like those in Encore! Performance Society, some of whom have gone on to college dance programs and professional companies.

For more about the Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas, see upcoming print issues of First American Art Magazine, which can be bought at bookstores or ordered online at the magazine’s website. For more on Encore! Performing Society, visit their website or Facebook page.

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