Tulsa sculptures commemorate Oklahoma's five Indian ballerinas
ANADARKO, Okla. - For decades, the state of Oklahoma has been proud of its five Native prima ballerinas and all of their accomplishments. The skill and grace of these women have inspired paintings by such artists as Creek painter Jerome Tiger and Chickasaw painter Mike Larsen. This is in addition to the multitudes of accolades and honors these women have received through their lifetime.
On Nov. 14, 2007, five bronze sculptures entitled ''The Five Moons,'' created by Oklahoma artist Gary Henson, were unveiled on the west lawn of the Tulsa Historical Society. These statues depict the five ballerinas in their prime: Osage sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief; Moscelyne Larkin of the Shawnee and Peoria tribes; Choctaw Nation member Rosella Hightower; and Yvonne Chouteau, who is a Shawnee on the Cherokee Nation rolls.
Chouteau, 78, of Oklahoma City, was the only one able to attend the unveiling. Born and raised in nearby Vinita, Okla., Chouteau has a deep affection for Tulsa, which is where she studied dance with Larkin's mother, who Chouteau called ''Madame Eva.''
Chouteau attended the unveiling with her husband and co-founder of the University of Oklahoma School of Dance and Ballet Oklahoma, Miguel Terekhov. To Chouteau the unveiling ''was especially dramatic because we gathered together there in Tulsa,'' she said. ''It was dusk, around 6 p.m. That made it even more mystical to see these statues, and knowing [the ballerinas] it was very, very moving to see how perfectly the artist captured the spirit of each girl. I was very impressed. Of course, I'm very partial to Tulsa. Whatever Tulsa does, they do very, very well.''
The sculptures were based on 8-by-10 photographs that each ballerina submitted from her favorite work. Chouteau's own contribution was from a ballet very personal to her called ''Trail of Tears.''
The name of the sculpture is derived from a ballet entitled ''The Four Moons,'' composed by the late Institute of American Indian Arts professor, Louis Ballard of the Quapaw and Cherokee tribes. Ballard composed the work specifically for the five ballerinas to perform together in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa as part of Oklahoma's 60th birthday celebration in 1967, with Tiger creating the art for the program.
Chouteau's own journey as a ballerina began as a child in Vinita, learning to dance at traditional stomp dances and pow wows in northeast Oklahoma. After formal dance study in Tulsa, she eventually became the youngest member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Chouteau said the five ballerinas still share a close bond as sisters, and felt comfortable speaking on behalf of her and the other ballerinas about their love of dance.
''We went into this not wanting to be famous - it was beside the point,'' Chouteau said. ''We did this because we loved it with all our heart. We felt we simply couldn't live without dancing. All of us felt like that, since we were babes in arms. We had to dance. It was in our nature or spirit to dance. So many people have asked me over these many, many years, not only in Oklahoma but everywhere, 'How is it that five girls - ladies from Oklahoma - chose the same art and each of you excelled to a certain degree in it?' I don't know. I think it's very much due to the fact that we all had Indian heritage, and dancing comes very, very naturally to the American Indian.''
After the ballerinas retired from performing, each of them became involved with teaching ballet and passing down what they learned to younger generations.
Chouteau's interest in ballet specifically came when she was a young girl, and her parents took her to a ballet performance in Oklahoma City. It was at this performance that she decided that ballet would be her path in life.
''The appeal for young ladies is that it's [ballet] such a feminine, beautiful thing,'' Chouteau said. ''It certainly was when I entered into it. When I joined the Ballet Russe, I was just 14. That was the year 1943. Many years before that, my parents took me to see a ballet performance in Oklahoma City with a famous Ballet Russe company. When I saw the ballet, all the young ladies had beautiful white-tulled skirts on with white satin bodice[s]. On the hair were white flowers and blue wreaths of flowers. I thought, 'Oh, this is so beautiful. This is so wonderful, this gorgeous Chopin music, dancing to it.' I thought this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.''
Chouteau's inspiration to dance not only comes from her training and early exposure to Native music, but also from her father and grandfather, who were musicians in their right. But for Chouteau, the ultimate inspiration to dance comes from within.
''I love dancing so much,'' she said. ''It really comes from the soul. I think any great art does. It's just a beautiful, beautiful outlet.''