You may remember Sono Osato for her cameo solo in Massine's ballet, "Union Pacific," in 1934 when she was only 15. Or for her dancing of Rosaline in Anthony Tudor's "Romeo and Juliet" four decades ago. Or her emergence as a comedienne in Agnes de Mille's choreography for "One Touch of Venus," her portrayal of Ivy Smith in the original production of "On the Town," her film appearance with Frank Sinatra in "The Kissing Bandit," her off-Broadway stint with Zero Mostel in "Once Over Lightly."
More likely, you don't remember her at all. She stopped dancing in the '50s, and the art of the dancer is evanescent. Memories remain for a while in minds of those who were there and who really care, but only a few names (mostly Russian or Russianized) remain alive for a large public very long after the music has ended and the motion has stopped.
Sono Osato, who refused to Russianize her name whe she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at 14, is not a dance legend on the scale of Nijinsky, Pavlova or Baryshnikov. She had her moments of glory, but most of the time she was simply a solid professional, one of the hundreds whose relatively unheralded work is the real substance of the performing arts. For her whole career, she had trouble doing a fouette and she made her modest reputation more on Broadway than in ballet. When the dancing had to stop, her attempts at an acting career on film and on the stage were at best uncomfortable. Her most vivid memory of Hollywood seems to be that of director Laszlo Benedek telling her, over and over, to "Look sexy," an assignment whose difficulties she explains in some detail.
In an age infatuated with superstardom, people like Sono Osato seldom get to publish their autobiographies; and that is probably a pity. Her life involved mostly hard work, and its elements of glamor seem to center largely on other people: Leonide Massine, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins -- even Gelsey Kirkland, to whom she gives a tip on makeup in the book's final scene. But it was an interesting life, and she tells it frankly and with a wealth of anecdote.
She was born in Omaha in 1919, the first child of a Japanese photographer who had moved to America when he was 19 and an Irish-French Canadian mother who had vague aspirations toward a theatrical career and tended to wander away from her husband, sometimes for years on end. The first ballet company Sono Osato ever saw was Diaghilev's, about a year before his death, and walking out of the theater the 9-year-old girl told her mother she wanted to be a dancer.
That was at Monte Carlo, during one of her mother's absences from her father, a quiet, longsuffering man who sent his wife money regularly while she was away and whose pictures of Sono as a baby add charm to the book. Years later, when the family had been reunited in Chicago, Sono had successfully negotiated a three-minute audition, and she was leaving to join the Monte Carlo company, her father offered her a rare bit of advice: "Don't get married. It spoils everything." That was the end of her childhood. At 14, she was earning $25 a week as a member of the corps de ballet and she had her own passport. "I was slightly miffed that on the passport I was classified as a student rather than a dancer, because of the child-labor laws," she reports, "but it was a small price to pay for the independence of earning my own living."
She remained a corps dancer in some productions throughout her six years with the Ballet Russe, while developing solos in nine or 10 ballets and eventually becoming a regular dancer in the feminine lead of "The Prodigal Son." "On matinee days," she recalls, "I appeared in as many as seven ballets. I became so fatigued, guilty and confused that I couldn't even concentrate enough to read." She sent a written list of requests to the management: no more dancing in the corps for "Sylphides" and "Swan Lake" and a raise frm $60 to $75 per week. After 12 days of no response, she walked out, spent months in limbo, then finally joined the Ballet Theatre -- for $60 per week. Almost simultaneously, she discovered modern ballet (beginning with a secondary role in Tudor's "Pillar of Fire") and a young architect, Victor Elmaleh, who would eventually become her husband. She was awed by the new concepts in ballet ("I could not understand what a corner drugstore was doing in a ballet") and also by Victor: "This quiet young man seemed older and infinitely more self-possessed than the men I knew of my age. 'He's twenty-eight,' I thought to myself, 'and he has a mistress.'" They were both about 21, and he had no steady girlfriend.
The life Sono Osato divided between Victor and the stage was hectic, varied and sometimes traumatic -- just the kind of life that makes an interesting book. After Pearl Harbor, she was asked the change her professional name for the second time in her career -- this time not to something Russian but to something American -- and for a while she danced as Sono Fitzpatrick, using her mother's maiden name. She was forbidden to leave the country and warned to stay out of California in the early hysteria of the war, and her father was interned for 10 months -- an experience from which he never really recovered. Because she had spoken briefly at a meeting for refugees from Franco's Spain, she was later blacklisted. And for years after she left the stage, she would get uneasy feelings around five in the afternoon -- her body unconsciously telling her it was time to go to the theater.
Part of the interest in "Distant Dances" is specialized -- cameo descriptions of great dancers, musicians and choreographers at work. Much of it is anecdotal, like the story of dancers on tour sleeping 10 in a room to save on hotel bills -- and the chambermaids who wondered why so many towels were being used. But a personality emerges from these pages and is their central attraction -- the personality of a woman whose mind continues to dance with the grace and ease her body has lost.