Sono Osato, a woman of mystery, magic and courage, who survived racism, and the slings and arrows of working for Colonel de Basil

A serendipitous chain of events this month began when a Sydney Morning Herald columnist asked for help with an article he was writing on the social history of Sydney for the Herald’s wrap around edition marking the paper’s 185th anniversary.

He needed a quick rundown on the places and people whose names filled the social pages of the paper in the early to mid 20th century

As a journalist at the Herald for many years I’d often written about Sydney society for both for the paper and for several chapters of Connie Sweetheart, my biography of Connie Robertson, the women’s page editor of the paper for three decades.

One of her haunts was Romano’s, a city restaurant and nightclub where Connie and her favourite staff photographer, Gordon Short, would check out the socialites of the time.

The photos of the Fairfaxes, Knoxes, Allens, Lloyd Joneses, Stephens and Falkiners would fill the social pages in the 1930s to the 1950s.

The Herald’s archives are a treasure trove of vintage photos of society figures at the theatre, the races and restaurants, including many snapped at Romano’s. Two pics taken at Romano’s were published in the social history of Sydney article.

One of them, taken on New Year’s Eve, 1939, shows four unnamed party-goers, all smiles for the camera, apparently pouring alcohol into a very large bowl as they celebrated the new year.

They weren’t identified but the two men and two women were members of Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe troupe who toured Australia in 1939/40.

When the photo was taken the company had just begun the tour with a season at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

The woman with the long dark hair is Sono Osato, then 20.

Now aged 96, she must be one of the last surviving members of de Basil’s troupes who thrilled audiences in Australia and the United States for many decades.

I think the man standing next to her is Roman Jasinsky, a Polish dancer who was 32 at the time. When the couple danced in Australia, he had been Osato’s lover for five years.

Throughout her professional life as a dancer Osato faced many challenges due to her family background.

Racism and prejudice meant she went through several transformations. Osato was first described as “exotic” or “Oriental”, then had to change her name to hide her Japanese surname, and she had to work hard to minimise her Asian appearance by carefully applied makeup to make her eyelids look concave.

But Osato was feisty. When she joined de Basil’s company aged only 14 he asked her to change her surname to a Russian name, as most of his dancers were forced to do.

She refused. “My name remained my own”, she said. Nevertheless, within the company she was nicknamed ‘Sonotchka’ according to the choreographer, Agnes de Mille, who later cast her in the musical, One Touch of Venus.

The daughter of a Japanese father, and an Irish-French Canadian mother, Osato could be compared with Anna May Wong, an equally beautiful woman whose career was limited due to her nationality.

Wong was the first Chinese-American Hollywood star (who incidentally was also in Australia as a performer in the Tivoli Circuit in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War).

I’ve seen many photos of Osato in the past but discovered much more of her life reading extracts from a fascinating book, Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, published in 2014. The author, Professor Carol J Oja, Chair of Harvard’s Department of Music, thoroughly researched Osato’s life and the restrictions placed on her.

Osato’s father, Shoji, born in Akita, Japan, migrated to the United States when he was 19 and built a career as a photographer. Her mother, Frances Fitzpatrick, was of Irish and French-Canadian descent. They decided to marry but had to do so in Iowa as a marriage between a Japanese and American was illegal in Nebraska.

Osato and her siblings were born in Omaha, Nebraska, but their early years were nomadic. They moved to Chicago but then Frances, in search of adventure and a new romance, took her children to France where they went to school.

During a journey to Monte Carlo, Frances took Osato to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where they saw Leonide Massine dance in Michel Fokine’s ballet, Cleopatre.

Osato was spellbound. When the family returned to the United States she began her dance training in Chicago with Adolph Bolm then Berenice Holmes who took her star pupil to audition for a contract with de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, then on tour in America.

She was successful and remained a member of de Basil’s companies for six years.

Not long after the Australian tour, she quit, frustrated with the way she danced ballerina roles but was not promoted to the rank of principal artist or paid the salary she deserved.

(De Basil was known for his stinginess.)

As a freelance artist, Osato hired a publicist to create a persona that might intrigue potential employers.

Researching her book, Carol Oja discovered – in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre – a promotional letter written in 1940 for Osato.

As Oja wrote: “Sono was being marketed as a transnational artist. At this point – one year before Pearl Harbor – her mixed-race heritage was pitched as a valuable asset. Sono was described as ‘a cultural League of Nations’ – as being as ‘exotic in real life…as the Siren in The Prodigal Son’. At the same time, her ‘Chicago English and brisk American manner’ were ‘as exhilarating as football weather.’

“Sono was thus promoted as a cosmopolitan figure whose identity was thoroughly hybrid”.

Osato joined Ballet Theatre in 1940 but her “identity” became a problem a year later following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

When Ballet Theatre went on tour to Mexico she was unable to obtain a passport to travel and when the company danced in California she was banned from visiting the state.

At one stage during her time with the company she had to abandon her surname, changing it to her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick.

After Pearl Harbour her father was arrested as an alien enemy and interned.

Osato remained at Ballet Theatre until 1943 when she left to play the role of ‘Premiere Dancer’ in Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, choreographed by de Mille.

In her autobiography, And Promenade Home, de Mille describes Osato as: “Plain-spoken in six languages…she talked in a flat Omaha voice and took no nonsense from anyone.

“She was brave and sweet, but she was not stupid.

“She trusted where she could trust, which, in the theater, is very seldom.

“This combination of mystery, courage, sportsmanship and magic drove people, I mean men, stark mad”.

Her career highlight was her role as Ivy ‘Miss Turnstyles’ Smith in Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical, On the Town, choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Coincidentally, Misty Copeland, another ballet dancer who became famous as the first African-American principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, performed in that role in a revival of On the Town last year.

Osato married the Moroccan-born architect and property developer, Victor Elmaleh, in 1943 and they had two sons.

Elmaleh died in 2014 aged 95. His obituary in The New York Times, notes that his real estate development over the years was worth $US7 billion.

Osato’s memoir, Distant Dances, was published in 1980.

When I first saw the photo of her taken at Romano’s I planned to write only a few paragraphs about her time in Australia.

Instead, I found the remarkable story of a strong woman whose travels, trials and triumphs were worthy of much more.