Japanese American ballet star Sono Osato dies at 99

Sono Osato, a multiracial Japanese American ballet dancer who gained acclaim on Broadway, was found dead at her Manhattan home Dec. 26, 2018, The New York Times reported. She was 99.

According to the Times, Osato was the first performer of Japanese descent in Col. Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes, said to be the world’s most widely known ballet company, when she joined in the 1930s. When she joined at age 14, she was the company’s youngest dancer.

She danced in the early 1940s with the Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater), and received a Donaldson Award for best female dancer for her performance in the 1943 show “One Touch of Venus,” the Times reported.

During World War II, her father had been confined under military guard in Chicago as an enemy alien, while her brother Tim had been enlisted to fight in Italy with the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Times said.

According to the Times, Osato had just finished dancing as the Lilac Fairy in the Ballet Theater’s “Princess Aurora” on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, when she learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She feared returning for the evening performance.

“My heritage had never been hidden,” Ms. Osato recalled in a 2009 interview. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, people in the audience who had a child in Hawaii. What if someone throws something at me? What’s going to happen if they hiss at me?’”

Her boyfriend and future husband, Victor Elmaleh, along with the ballet’s management, persuaded her to go on again that night, and she noted that “nothing did happen.”
Osato played Ivy Smith, billed as the “all-American girl,” in “On the Town.” Her father, Shoji, was a native of Japan, and her mother, Frances, was of French-Irish background.

“It was amazing to me that at the height of a world war fought over the vital political, moral and racial issues, a Broadway musical should feature, and have audiences unquestionably accept, a half-Japanese as an all-American girl,” she wrote in a memoir, “Distant Dances” (1980), the Times reported.

Reviewing “On the Town” for The New York Times, Lewis Nichols wrote, “Miss Osato brought down the highest rafters when she appeared a year ago in ‘One Touch of Venus,’ and there is no reason to replace any of those rafters now.” He added, “Her dancing is easy and her face expressive.”

Sono Osato was born on Aug. 29, 1919, in Omaha, Nebraska, where her father worked as a photographer. She moved with her family to Chicago and became involved with ballet as a child.

She joined the Ballet Theater soon after being enthralled with the art. Although she enjoyed success in New York, the military and the federal government prohibited her from touring with the group to Mexico and California because of her Japanese background.

In addition to her sons Niko and Antonio Elmaleh, she is survived by three grandchildren, The New York Times noted. She was predeceased in 2014 by her husband Elmaleh, whom she married in 1943 and who became a real estate developer.

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