Sono Osato (August 29, 1919 - December 26, 2018) attended her first ballet performance at the age of eight, when her mother took her to see Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; Osato was mesmerized by Léonide Massine in Fokine’s Cléopâtre. Soon after, she saw Tamara Toumanova dance and was inspired to become a dancer herself. She began to study ballet at age ten, and four years later, in 1934, a friend of her teacher arranged an impromptu audition with Wassily de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She was accepted into the company, and soon found herself dancing alongside both Toumanova and Massine.
Osato was the Ballet Russe’s youngest and first American, as well as its first Japanese, member. Born of a Japanese father and an Irish-French Canadian mother, Osato grew up in the United States and France, constantly feeling like an outsider. Although dance was a means for her to escape this feeling of difference, she often had to disguise her Oriental features with heavy make-up. Unlike the other non-Russians, however, Osato refused to adopt a Russian name. She wrote, “The colonel suggested that I take a Russian name. I refused. . . . My name remained my own.”
Osato left the Ballet Russe in 1940, tired of appearing in the chorus with few solo roles. She soon joined Ballet Theater, dancing under her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, due to anti-Japanese sentiments. One of Osato’s most memorable performances with Ballet Theater was her creation of Rosaline in Antony Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet, developed specifically for her. Another was her creation of a Lover-in-Experience in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire. Osato wrote, “I always felt he [Tudor] wanted the body to sing, rapturously, languorously, and longingly in turn. . . . When I was finally able to move as he wished, I felt a new sense of satisfaction in my dancing.”
In 1942, Osato left Ballet Theater to marry, but the couple’s financial situation forced her to resume her career. Nora Kaye, a former colleague, told Osato to write to Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing the Mary Martin vehicle, One Touch of Venus (1943). The comic solo that de Mille eventually created for Osato established her popularity. The morning after her smash debut, Osato received a call from Paramount Pictures. At the time, she refused to make any films for them, telling her husband, “As long as the war lasts . . . what on earth could I do in Hollywood with my looks? Sit around the back lot waiting to play a Japanese spy?” She would, however, eventually make one film, The Kissing Bandit (1947), starring Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. Her main task in the film was “to be sexy and to entice Frank, the Kissing Bandit.”
Photographed on April 16, 1942, in Pillar of Fire, by Carl Van Vechten
Summarizing her career, Osato stated that “any strong endeavor that gives you a sense of joy is the greatest thing in life....If I could point to the most powerful experience of my ballet career, it would be the rehearsals of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire. That was the greatest artistic and emotional experience I’ve ever had. What I got out of it was immense.”
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