A life with the Ballet Russe; Distant Dances, by Sono Osato. New York: alfred A. Knopf
More than any of the other muses, Terpisichore depends upon the generations of her followers for continuation. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods of those who dance are bound together in performance and daily practice, but they must also ensure the future of their traditions. Thus when we watch a program by any ballet company we are connected to the artists of the past.
One of the conduits that brought the European art of ballet to America was the Ballet Russe company of the 1930s, inheritor of the Diaghilev innovations. The Ballet Russe continued the modern notion that a ballet company could exist apart from court patronage or a government subsidy. It brought together a rich mixture of all nationalities to create a troupe that transcended national borders.
In "Distant Dances," Sono Osato, an American of partial Japanese descent, writes of the mid-1930s when she joined the Ballet Russe as a teen-ager, then about Ballet Theatre and the 1940s on the Broadway stage. As a member of the corps de ballet and a soloist, Osato was part of this history. She describes in human scale the legendary figures: Leonide Massine, Alexandra Danilova, the "baby ballerinas" Tamara Toumanova, Tatiana Riabouchinsha (and her mama), Irina Boronova, and others.
Backstage, on the move by train and bus, reviving the old ballets and learning new ones, these men and women were part of the intense, small cosmos that encompasses a ballet company. If the public was made aware of the hierarchy of stars and corps, the friendships forged n the press of getting the show on in town after town were more democratic.
Osato shows us Michel Fokine, overweight and nearly bald, who nevertheless evoked the essence of a sylph when rehearsing the Ballet Russe in his work "Les Sylphides." Anthony Tudor performed with equal clarity as he created his "Romeo and Juliet" for Ballet Theatre. Later, for Broadway, Osato was there with Agnes de Mille for the out-of-town tryout of "One Touch of Venus." Osato remembers de Mille working on a fourth and then a fifth version of the bacchanal.
Osato is writing her autobiography, but manages to compose a biography of certain stages of these companies as well. Her remembrances are touched with love, humor, and insight about a period too close to have been examined in depth as yet by the dance historians but too important to be forgotten as preparations for the contemporary dance boom.