Sono Osato, the Japanese-American ballet dancer who created the role of Ivy Smith in the 1944 Broadway premiere of On the Town, died December 27 at age 99.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1919 to a French-Canadian mother and Japanese father, Osato began her professional career at the age of 14, when she auditioned for and was hired to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1934. She made history not only as the company’s youngest dancer, but also as the first American, and the first dancer of Japanese descent to join the internationally renowned troupe.
She departed the company in 1941, going on to study at the School of American Ballet, later joining the American Ballet Theatre, where she danced with Nora Kaye, Alexandra Danilova, Antony Tudor, Lucia Chase, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins, creating roles such as Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet.
Her historic achievements, however, were not enough to shield Osato from discrimination and racial adversity, even within the performing arts. After her father was sent to a Japanese internment camp at the outbreak of World War II, Osato was encouraged to change her name; she assumed her mother’s maiden name, performing as Sono Fitzpatrick with ABT. Because of her Japanese heritage, the federal government barred the American-born dancer from touring with ABT.
Returning to her given name, Osato began a career on Broadway when she was cast as a featured dancer in the 1943 musical One Touch of Venus, choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Her work in the production earned her the inaugural Donaldson Award for Best Female Dancer in 1944.
However, it was her casting as Ivy Smith in the 1944 Broadway premiere of On the Town that marked a historic moment in racial integration onstage.
The musical about a trio of U.S. sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City is often overlooked for breaking ground as one of the first Broadway productions to feature a non-segregated cast. In addition to casting a Japanese American in a principal role, the original company of On the Town also included six African American performers in its ensemble, a progressive decision that was noted by critics at the time.
The creative team, led by composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were deliberate in their decision to eschew racial stereotypes in the production, offering no commentary or acknowledgment of race onstage. Her father, who remained confined under military guard, was unable to attend her historic opening-night performance, which drew praise from critics.
She subsequently co-starred with Frank Sinatra in the 1947 film musical The Kissing Bandit and returned to Broadway twice more, taking on acting roles in the 1948 Jerome Moross musical Willie the Weaper and a 1951 revival of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Osato retired from performing shortly thereafter, dedicating much of her life to her family. She was married to architect and property developer Victor Elmaleh with whom she had two sons. In addition to her sons, she is survived by her three grandchildren.
Osato’s memoir, Distant Dances, was published in 1980. A longtime champion of Career Transition for Dancers, Osato established the Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies in 2006 and was honored in 2008 with the Career Transition for Dancers Award for Outstanding Contributions to the World of Dance.