Honoring a Bold Ballerina

The name Sono Osato might not be widely known among the current generation of dancers. But the Japanese-American ballerina, who became the toast of Broadway in the 1940s, was in many ways the Misty Copeland of her time. On January 9, at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, Thodos Dance Chicago will debut a dance-theater piece by choreographer Melissa Thodos that pays homage to Osato's story, as part of the company's American Legacy Project.

The one-act work, Sono's Journey, chronicles the barrier-breaking career of the former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre star who grew up in Chicago. The dancer was a favorite of Jerome Robbins, who spotlighted her as Miss Turnstiles in the original Broadway production of On the Town. The 1944 musical was renowned for its progressive casting at a time when diversity was far from the rule. Ironically, that musical opened when Osato's father's movements were still restricted due to the U.S. government's World War II–era Japanese American internment policies.

“I wanted to tell Osato's inspirational story in the very medium she worked in," says Thodos. “What fascinated me was the way her life and career had so many important parallels with our time. It's about diversity, and how this artist continued to grow and thrive while overcoming prejudice and professional limitations."

Thodos, who did much of her research through interviews with the now 96-year-old Osato in New York, is telling the story through a mix of traditional and abstract dance. Set to a blend of music, with the entire score designed by John Nevin, the piece will be enhanced by spoken narrative, projections of archival material and an interactive set design. “None of my dancers happen to be Asian, but I spoke to Osato and it was not a problem for her," says Thodos. “She said she is most interested in seeing the dancers' hearts."

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Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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Health & Body
Sara Mearns in the gym. Photo by Kyle Froman.

New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.

"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "

She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.

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In Memoriam
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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