"Eurydice" is a poem written by the poet Elise Paschen about her mother, Maria Tallchief. Her mother was America's first prima ballerina, and was Native American (Osage Tribe). She inspired several poems of the poet. Maria Tallchief was married to George Ballanchine, choreographer and "father of American ballet," who also figures in the poem. Orpheus refers to the myth of the musician with his lyre, who loses his love Eurydice by looking back. Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of the New York Ballet is also referred to, Kirstein describes a different "Orpheus," from another version of Eurydice by the composer Gluck: he sees the drama as one between the artist and domesticity (Maria Tallchief is seen in the beginning stitching a skirt). The poem raises several questions -- does the same tragedy of a life of domesticity versus the life of the artist play out in this poem? Her mother is both wife and artist. How does the poem change when the poet addresses the dancer as "mother"? What does it mean that this Eurydice returns from death? Or that the poet addressing her mother had not yet been born at the time she played this role? Learn more about Maria Tallchief in this story by Rebecca Miller, which has an audio version:

Eurydice by Elise Paschen

by Elise Paschen from United States

138052Maria Tallchief - Eurydice by Elise PaschenUnknown - Dance Magazine February 1954, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons | Photo: Jennifer Girard courtesy Elise Paschen

  In 1947, when Kirstein and I agreed that Ballet Society should commission a new ballet from

Stravinsky, the composer consented to the project.  He asked for

suggestions, and I told him that I would like to do a new, modern

“Orpheus.” It seemed to me that the Orpheus myth, with its

powerful portrayal of the poet-musician’s destiny and of his love,

was particularly appropriate for ballet, and particularly a ballet

with music by Stravinsky.

                                                                                                                                     -- George Balanchine  




You were all of twenty-three, married

to Balanchine.  The nights he spent,

absorbed, at work on “Orpheus”

you felt alone, and stayed at home, 

stitching an Indian patterned skirt.

But when you danced Eurydice’s


last pas de deux, you wrapped your arms

and legs around your poet husband,

“Orpheus,” willing him to look

into your eyes.  As Balanchine

wrote:  “tormented because she cannot

be seen by the man she loves.”


Attempting to seduce, you dance

the dance till finally he tears

away his mask, and you collapse

to earth and die.  During rehearsal

Stravinsky asked, “How long to die?”

In the score he scratched five long counts.


The time of the ballet, “the time

of sand and snakes,” “of Greek earth legends”

wrote Balanchine.  And Kirstein saw

(describing their Gluck’s “Orpheus”)

“the eternal domestic tragedy

between an artist and his wife.”


Your husband, armed with song, lays siege,

enchants the gods to claim you back,

vowing he will not look.  But you

persuade him.  Therefore Orpheus

throws off his mask, and loses you.

His mask becomes a lyre.


Mother, when I was young, I watched

you from the wings and saw the sweat

dripping from arms and neck, your gasp

for breath.  I thought it was your last.

But no.  You’d towel off, and then

step back into the spotlight, smiling.   

Published in Bestiary (Red Hen Press, 2009). Reprinted here with permission.

Page created on 1/13/2020 1:45:46 AM

Last edited 1/19/2021 5:24:23 AM

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Related Links

Official Website | Elise Paschen - From the author's website: "Elise Paschen, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, is the author of, most recently, The Nightlife (Red Hen Press, 2017), Bestiary, Infidelities (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), and Houses: Coasts. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she received the Garrison Medal for poetry. She holds M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees from Oxford University. Paschen received the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs Medal in 2019."