Sono's Journey Review - An exciting premier by Thodos Dance Chicago

January 9th, 2016 was proclaimed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to be Sono Osato Day in the City of Chicago; the proclamation was clearly prompted by the world premiere that evening of “Sono”s Journey”, a one-act ballet created and performed by Thodos Dance Chicago at the Auditorium. 50 E. Congress, Chicago. The piece, that evening presented in conjunction with three other pieces from Thodos ‘ repertoire, will be presented again on February 20th at the North Shore Center in Skokie and on March 5th at the Harris Theatre in Chicago, as part of Thodos Dance Chicago’s new “Chicago Revealed” Winter Concert Series.

Sono's Journey, with photo of the young Sono

Sono Osato, a Chicagoan whose life as a dancer began on the very stage where her life was recounted, had an unusual background and an inspiring and acclaimed career that spanned many decades. The first half of the evening on January 9th at the historically significant Auditorium was given over to the dance that now bears her name. Before the intermission, the 96 year old prima ballerina and Broadway star appeared in her wheelchair, accepted bouquets and the hugs of choreographer Melissa Thodos, and both she and the piece received a rousing and thunderous standing ovation with cheers. After witnessing the abbreviated story of her life narrated and beautifully danced by this marvelous company, intriguingly  spot-lit, back-lit and accompanied by a wide range of compelling music, largely composed by Johnny Nevin, under three extra-large screens depicting photographs and images from her life, it was almost unbearably moving when the piece ended and the frail and lovely 96 year-old dancer emerged. Her family also attended the premiere.

Sono's Journey with Japanese Gardens

Thodos Dance Chicago was founded in 1992 by Melissa Thodos; since then, this ensemble, called “breathtakingly athletic”, “powerfully beautiful”, and described as “performing vibrant choreography”, has continued to captivate Chicago audiences.The company of 12 uses a variety of dance forms; it describes its mission as “inspiring expression through dance education, dance creation and dance performance”. The company and its founder have won numerous awards and grants; they perform locally and internationally, utilizing a wide array of works by American choreographers as well as their own ensemble-choreographed pieces. The American Dance Legacy Project they initiated helps “to keep the creative voice on stage from renowned American dance artists no longer visible to the public’, like Sono Osato".

Osato was born to a Japanese father and Irish-French Canadian mother who moved to Chicago when she was a young girl. They encouraged her dance talent, allowing her to audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at 14: she made it into the company and toured extensively until the outbreak of World War 2 brought her back to the States. She went on to become a member of what later became American Ballet Theater, and even wrote a book about her life, called “Distant Dances”. Her parents were the caretakers of the Japanese Tea Garden and Pavilion in Jackson Park: these had been a gift to Chicago from the Japanese government. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they lost this position, and Mr. Osato was detained in an interment camp on Chicago’s South Side. Happily, the Japanese Garden and Phoenix Pavilion are being rebuilt and restored by Project 120, a civic public-private partnership with the Park District.

Sono's Journey with war images

The full company piece used the voice of Ellen Karas to tell the  condensed story, taken from her autobiography, of Osato’s life. The scenery included multi-barred screens which reflected the images of the dancers, often depicted as shadows from behind; this was especially effective in the scenes about the war and her father’s incarceration. The great costumes, featuring red dance dresses, (echoed in the second half of the program with red dresses worn by men AND women), also included floaty grey ensembles aptly designed by Nathan Rohrer. The title piece could never have contained all of Osato’s life, and perhaps ended too abruptly.

Near Light

The second half of the program consisted of 3 shorter pieces from the repertory: “Near Light”, “Memoirs” and “All You Need Is’. Unfortunately, moving and clever as they were, they were almost anticlimactic after the emotional pull of the first piece.“Near Light”, choreographed by Thodos,  and “Memoirs”, by Garfield Lemonius are both large ensemble works, filled with dancing challenges like turns, lifts and high extensions with rapid changes of level. “All you Need Is", choreographed by Taylor Mitchell, is a witty ensemble piece about the nature of fun in love, with the dancers strewing and sweeping up red confetti-it was a lot of fun and let the audience out on a festive note.As always, Thodos Dance Chicago produced a memorable evening. Chicagoans should avail themselves of the upcoming opportunities to see “Sono’s Journey” and the rest of the Winter Series.

All You Need Is

For more information and tickets, visit thodosdancechicago website

Photo credits of Sono's Journey by Chloe Hamilton Press; all other images courtesy of Cheryl Mann





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