Trailblazing Japanese-American ballet dancer Sono Osato died this past week at the age of 99. She was born in Omaha to a Japanese father and a white mother whose marriage had taken place in Iowa, given that such an interracial union was illegal in Nebraska at the time. As a 14 year old she was the first American to join the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and after returning to the States, she became a key performer for American Ballet Theatre. But the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, her immigrant father was incarcerated in Chicago and, shortly after, branded by the authorities an enemy alien. She herself began to go by her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, under pressure from ABT management, and she was not permitted to enter the state of California or travel outside the U.S. when the company went on tour. (Her brother Tim, however, was able to travel abroad, serving in Europe as a member of the famous all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit of its size in American military history.)
Eventually, she did Broadway and movies. Her most noteworthy role remains that of Ivy Smith in her good friend Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town. (She was the first to play the all-American character, a role that was also played by Misty Copeland when she made her own Broadway debut a few years ago.) Sono’s casting was controversial; the war was still going, and anti-Japanese racism was still strong. The entire production, though, sought to upend prejudicial norms; several African Americans were also part of the cast, an unusually mixed-race one for the time.
The musical was a major Broadway event, even getting the famed New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s treatment (bottom right below).
From her entire career, there is very little existing video of Sono actually dancing, but here is a scene (filled with examples of questionable cultural appropriation, to be sure) that demonstrates her powerful presence. At least Frank Sinatra seems to find her presence powerful:
Sono and her husband Victor, a Moroccan Jewish immigrant who was an architect and later a real estate developer, were married for over 70 years. (He was also a national doubles champion in handball and squash.) They became philanthropists, sponsoring scholarships and supporting artists. Earlier this year, her longtime waterfront estate in the Hamptons was put up for sale, listed by Sotheby’s for $37 million.
The organization that may have been closest to Sono’s heart is Career Transition for Dancers, which helps dancers with career counseling and scholarships. It merged just a few years ago with The Actors Fund and continues its work, which you can learn more about here.
As a ballet dad, I feel that Sono helped to pave the way for my daughters, both of whom are dancers. Thousands of Asian-American girls are involved in American ballet programs these days! May Sono rest in peace.