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THE TERM “Native American dancer” may conjure up the image of an Indian campfire, but actuality couldn’t be more contrasting. Yvonne Chouteau, who died recently at age 86, had a French-American/Shawnee-Cherokee heritage. At the age of 14, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the prestigious company’s youngest dancer at the time. Yvonne went on to establish a university level school of dance and a civic ballet company in her native Oklahoma.
Yvonne Chouteau was a direct descendant of Maj. Jean-Pierre Chouteau, 1758 – 1849, who in 1796 established the first non-native-American settlement in Oklahoma. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Chouteau as U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs west of the Mississippi.
Yvonne was inspired by seeing famed ballerina Alexandra Danilova dance in Oklahoma City. She went on to study dance in Oklahoma and later at the School of American Ballet in New York. It was Danilova who recommended her in 1943 to Serge Denham of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Chouteau became one of five Native American dancers known collectively as the Five Moons. There’s a set of bronze sculptures honoring them at the Tulsa Historical Society as well as a mural in the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Chouteau’s first solo with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was in a 1945 production of Leo Delibes’ Coppélia. Major roles followed, about which British dance critic P.W. Manchester wrote, “Although she is tall and strongly built, she is very light and brings an ecstatic quality to her dancing.”
A proud Oklahoman, in 1947 Yvonne became the first person under age 50 to be inducted into that state’s Hall of Fame. In 1956, she married fellow Ballet Russe dancer Miguel Terekhov, who had Uruguayan Charraúa Indian heritage. Together, they founded the School of Dance at the University of Oklahoma in 1963, the first fully accredited program of its kind in the U.S. The pair also established what became today’s Oklahoma City Ballet. When the Smithsonian Institution opened its National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2004, Chouteau was honored with the inaugural National Cultural Treasures Award.
Yvonne often joked that by reversing the syllables of her surname, she got, most appropriately, the word “toe-shoe.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016