Thodos Dance’s next “story ballet” full of Chicago connections

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SHARE Thodos Dance’s next “story ballet” full of Chicago connections

Thodos Dance Chicago has enjoyed formidable local and national success with two recent full-length “dance stories” co-choreographed by Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking: “The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893” (a 2011 work freely adapted from the Erik Larson book that is soon to be a movie), and “A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan” (which debuted in 2013).

Now comes word that its next work of dance theater, “Sono’s Journey,” choreographed by Thodos alone, is to receive its world premiere Jan. 9 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress. It will look at the life and barrier-breaking career of Sono Osato, the Japanese-American dance legend who was a star of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theater, and was a favorite of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who spotlighted her in the original Broadway production of “On the Town,” the 1944 musical renowned for its progressive, diverse casting.

An archival photo of ballerina Sono Osato.

An archival photo of ballerina Sono Osato.

Born in 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska, Osato (who turns 96 on Aug. 29), moved to Chicago as a young girl with her Japanese father, Shoji Osato, and Irish-French Canadian mother, Francis Fitzpatrick. Her parents recognized and cultivated her talent as a dancer early on, and prepared themselves and their daughter for an international career. In 1934, at the tender age of 14, Sono’s dream came true on the stage of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre with a life-changing audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

After Sono left for the world of professional dance, her parents became the caretakers of Jackson Park’s Japanese Tea Garden and Phoenix Pavilion, a gift to the city of Chicago from Japan following the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Shoji and Francis cared for the gardens during the years leading up to World War II, from 1935 to 1941. But following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and at the very moment Sono was beginning to star on Broadway, Shoji was taken and held in an internment camp on Chicago’s south side.

Sono, who now lives in New York (and was married for more than 60 years to real estate developer Victor Elmaleh, who died in 2014), continued to grow and thrive as a dancer, while overcoming prejudice and professional limitations throughout her career because of her Japanese heritage. In later life she founded the Sono Osato Scholarship Program in Graduate Studies at Career Transition For Dancers to help former dancers finance graduate work in both the professions and the liberal arts.

An archival photo of the young ballerina, Sono Osato. (Photo: Courtesy of Thodos Dance Chicago)

An archival photo of the young ballerina, Sono Osato. (Photo: Courtesy of Thodos Dance Chicago)

In conjunction with this new dance work, Sono and her family are working with Thodos Dance Chicago on a film documentary that is tracking the making of “Sono’s Journey,” and will include interviews with Sono and the artists involved with the work, as well as background stories. The film also will highlight Sono’s connections to Chicago, and the way her life story is coming full circle to the stage of the Auditorium Theatre.

Meanwhile, in a fine bit of synchrony, Chicago’s historic Japanese Garden is entering a new era of rebirth of its own thanks to the efforts of Project 120 Chicago, a civic public-private partnership with the Chicago Park District that is fostering an historic Japanese cultural exchange in Jackson Park, symbolized by recreating a new Phoenix Pavilion near the original site.

In addition to linking with Thodos Dance Chicago’s creation of “Sono’s Journey,” Project 120 Chicago has already attracted significant international attention to the revitalization of Jackson Park by commissioning visual artist Yoko Ono to create “Sky Landing,” her first permanent public art work in the Americas,which is set to open to the public in June 2016 in the park’s Garden of the Phoenix.

In a prepared statement, Robert Karr, Jr., president of Project 120 Chicago said: “Project 120 Chicago strongly believes in the power of the arts to tell human stories, and we are absolutely thrilled to collaborate with Thodos Dance Chicago to bring Sono Osato’s story back to where it all began. Osato’s story is our story – a universal tale about overcoming the adversity we encounter in our lives.”

“Sono’s Journey” is the third new work to emerge from Thodos Dance Chicago’s “American Dance Legacy Project,” which is dedicated to drawing attention to the creative voices of renowned American dance artists who are no longer visible to the public. The Project’s first work was “Fosse Trilogy,” a trio of rarely performed works by Bob Fosse, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The second was a suite of pieces choreographed by iconic Chicago modern dance legend Sybil Shearer, funded in part by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

Tickets to “Sono’s Journey” ($28-$68) are now on sale. Call (312) 341-2300.

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