Honoring a Bold Ballerina

December 27, 2015

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.”