Manso De Sousa shares 40 years of ballet

by Rebecca Leftwich


Members of the Southern Arc Dance Theater Company rehearse with SADT Artistic Director Paulo Manso de Sousa. 

Visitors to downtown Newnan's Fall Art Walk may have noticed girl-sized, futuristic flamingos frolicking in front of the courthouse or watched in fascination as human statues came to life to perform a pas de deux.

Perhaps they were startled when a bride burst into operatic song as she bustled along the sidewalk, trailing a butler and balloons. Or maybe they were amused by the Mozart-era pair, pausing their stroll to read from a scroll.

The performance art pieces — or site-specific work, as he prefers to call it — were the creation of Paulo Manso de Sousa, a Newnan resident and artistic director of the newly formed Southern Arc Dance Theatre.

"I just wanted to make some kind of strong statement about what SADT can do in the Newnan area," he said of the inaugural work. "I love Newnan. I've been here five years, and I see so much possibility, so much creativity. I'd love to be in the forefront of some of that."

Manso de Sousa's portfolio is weighty, his credentials ranging from the New York Met — his first professional gig — to the Miami City Ballet, where he was principal dancer the better part of a decade. He's worked for and alongside artists who are well-known even outside dance circles: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Gelsey Kirkland, to name a few. He's traveled the world as a dancer and teacher, soaking up each experience and making it part of his creative process.

"The more you do, the more you see, the more growth for you," Manso de Sousa said. "It's like an artist; the more colors he has on his palette, the better he can express himself. Dance is a language, so the more you experience with your body, the more you're able to express."

It all began with a stint as Action in his Oakland, California elementary school's production of "Westside Story." Manso de Sousa — who was born on the Portugese island of Medeira and had emigrated to California with his parents — caught the eye of the school's dance teacher, who had a small folkloric group that stayed busy performing at local events like Oktoberfest.

His actual segue to ballet, though, was his bronze medal-winning piece in the Highland Games Sword Dance competition, which featured a kilt-clad Manso de Sousa and his personal bagpiper. Afterward, one of his fellow dancers suggested ballet classes.

"I was a boy, I had two legs, I was proportioned, and so they gave me a scholarship," Manso de Sousa said.

The then-13-year-old was one of a young group of dancers who trained under an older regime.

"The director was hiring all these old Russians (Ballets Russes) that nobody really wanted because everybody was doing a new generation of dance," Manso de Sousa said. "So I got to work with these incredible people."

From Oakland, Manso de Sousa moved on to New York.

"That's where I really started to get obsessed with dance," he said.

Living in a one-room apartment with short-term parental support, Manso de Sousa needed more than his obsession — he needed a job. Weeks after making the move, he was one of 200 hopefuls auditioning for a spot at the New York Met. Of those 200 dancers, only one female and two males were selected. Manso de Sousa was among them.

The Oakland teenager had found his place.

"I loved doing what I was doing," he said. "I loved the classroom, I loved being coached. I love performing — don't get me wrong, it's incredible to be onstage — but there's something about the daily challenge of work, where you go to the barre and you have a coach and you keep trying to make it perfect."

Hard work often can turn into something beautiful and unexpected, Manso de Sousa said.

"The fun is, you take all you've experienced and all you've worked toward, and you can let muscle memory and intuition take over and then look back and see what came out of it," he said.

As the youngest dancer at the Met, Manso de Sousa said he was fascinated by the legendary opera house and its sideline ballet company. He introduced himself to the opera singers, watched the conductors and befriended James Levine, who was music director at the time. Levine watched him from the wings as he progressed as a dancer, eventually advising him to move along if he really wanted to have a career in dance.

Manso de Sousa took his advice and promptly went to work with Edward Villella, one of America's first well-known male dancers, who was director at the Eglevsky Ballet at the time. Villella recognized similarities in the young dancer's body and dance styles to his own, arranging for a scholarship at the School of American Ballet for training. 

Villella also spent time educating audiences about the art of dance.

"He would travel around, giving lecture demonstrations on his work with ("father of American ballet") George Balanchine, and we would do little vignettes of Balanchine ballets," Manso de Sousa said.

The intervening years were a whirlwind of dance and travel, acting and modeling, and teaching, teaching, teaching.

"I love being in the studio, creating," Manso de Sousa said.

He will open a for-profit studio offering dance classes next year, but Manso de Sousa's main focus is on SADT — a not-for-profit 501(c)3 company — and all he'd like to accomplish through it.

Continuing Villella's work, Manso de Sousa will begin his first series of lecture demonstrations at Newnan's Carnegie Library, presenting "Thumbelina" during the library's Story Time Nov. 12 and Nov. 19. 

The SADT Company has several performances planned throughout the area, and Manso de Sousa said hopes eventually to begin partnering with other dance companies and choreographers for performances on the local stage and the world stage as well.

Meanwhile, he is aiming for innovation and quality.

"I like creating and I like doing site-specific work, stuff for the libraries and schools," Manso de Sousa said. "All that's possible — it's what we used to do, and it's where I learned what we're doing.

"I have had a lot of rich experiences that I am eager to share with other people," he said. "It's 40 years of work. It's all I've ever done.

For more information on the Southern Arc Dance Theater, call 305-510-7385.

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