Sono Osato, a Japanese-American dancer who toured the world with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, performed with the Ballet Theater in New York and then gained acclaim on Broadway in the World War II-era musicals “One Touch of Venus” and “On the Town,” was found dead early Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 99.
Her death was confirmed by her sons, Niko and Antonio Elmaleh.
In the 1930s, Ms. Osato was a groundbreaking presence in Col. Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes, the world’s most widely known ballet company. She was the company’s youngest dancer when she joined, at 14; she was also its first performer of Japanese descent.
She danced in the early 1940s with the Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater), where her dramatic projection left an impact on Antony Tudor’s ballets. She was Rosaline in his “Romeo and Juliet” and a woman of easy virtue in his “Pillar of Fire.”
Ms. Osato received a Donaldson Award for best female dancer for her performance in the 1943 show “One Touch of Venus,” choreographed by Agnes de Mille, which starred Mary Martin as the statue of a Greek goddess that comes to life in modern Manhattan.
She was the original Miss Turnstiles — a takeoff on Miss Subways, a real beauty-contest promotion that the New York transit system once ran — in “On the Town,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins, in which three sailors on a 24-hour pass in Manhattan experience the fleeting romances of wartime.
But the war years proved a wrenching time for her, notwithstanding her professional success. Her father had been confined under military guard in Chicago as an enemy alien. Her brother, Tim, had been enlisted to fight in Italy with the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Ms. 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?’ ”
The ballet’s management and her boyfriend and future husband, Victor Elmaleh, persuaded her to go on again that night. She danced in a daze — but, as she remembered it, “nothing did happen.”
Although she was born and raised in the Midwest, Ms. Osato seemed an incongruous choice to play 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.
But Ms. Osato received outstanding reviews when the show, the first Broadway collaboration of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, opened in December 1944. She was especially gratified by the reception in light of her ethnic background.
As she wrote in a memoir, “Distant Dances” (1980), “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.”
Lewis Nichols, reviewing “On the Town” for The New York Times, 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, where her father worked as a photographer. She moved with her family to Chicago and became enthralled by ballet at age 8 when her mother took her to see Serge Diaghilev’s company perform “Cléopâtre” in Monte Carlo.
On returning home, Ms. Osato attended ballet classes. In 1934 she was taken on by Colonel de Basil’s company at an audition in Chicago. In November 1940 she danced with that company in Manhattan as the Siren in David Lichine’s newly choreographed version of “The Prodigal Son.”
“Her exotic beauty and her grasp of the mood and manner of the choreographer make her completely and delightfully right,” John Martin wrote in The Times.
Ms. Osato joined the Ballet Theater soon afterward. Although she enjoyed success in New York, the military and the federal government barred her from going with the troupe on its tours to Mexico and California because of her Japanese background.
She left “On the Town” in the fall of 1945 and was replaced by Allyn Ann McLerie. She made only sporadic appearances after that having decided to devote her time to her family.
In her later years, Ms. Osato, who lived in Manhattan, was a major benefactor of Career Transition for Dancers, which helps professional dancers train for new careers when their performing days end. In the fall of 2014, she attended a performance of the Broadway revival of “On the Town,” in which her role was played by Megan Fairchild.
In addition to her sons, she is survived by three grandchildren. Her husband, Mr. Elmaleh, whom she married in 1943 and who became a real estate developer with many properties in New York, died in 2014. Later in life she split her time between her homes in Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, on Long Island.
After the emotional turmoil of wartime, Ms. Osato was exhilarated when Germany surrendered; her father had been freed and her brother had survived the fighting in Italy.
On May 8, 1945 — V-E Day — she was looking out the windows of the Martin Beck Theater, where the Navy boys of “On the Town” were still romping through New York in the precious hours before their ship headed off to war.
“We saw crowds of men and women, in uniform and out, hugging, dancing and shouting,” Ms. Osato wrote in her memoir. “That day the reality outside in the streets blended gloriously with our glimpse onstage of the preciousness of our todays in the face of our unknown tomorrows. Joy and tearful relief engulfed the theater and the city.”