A Whole Life: A Portrait of Sharon Mansur

Sharon Mansur describes her childhood home as a place of collaborative creativity. “My dad used to draw,” she says. “We’d look at the Sunday comics, and if there was one strip we liked, he drew it on a bigger sheet of paper. My brother and I would color it in. We were always building things with Legos and Tinker Toys to create these worlds. I played violin; my brother played clarinet and drums. It was such an obvious, integrated way of being. I just felt art was a way of being in the world.”

Mansur grew up just outside Boston. Her mother’s ancestry is traceable back to Italy. Her father’s family comes from Lebanon. Mansur’s mother has maintained a life-long passion for the piano. Her father, an engineer by profession, grew up painting and drawing. Sharon’s brother, also an engineer, nurtured an artistic side as well. Sharon chose art as her profession, a continuation of passions that seem both innate and nurtured. “I got all the recessive genes and longing,” she says. “They exposed us [to art]. They had us painting and doing music, but I was a bit hyper as a child. I had a lot of energy so my mom thought, ‘oh, dancing would be a good outlet.’”

The Path
As many artists will tell you, there’s a difference between outlet and occupation, between what we do after work and what we do as work. When Mansur speaks about how she began to think of dance as a career, it seems natural, even logical.

“I just always loved it and wanted to do it,” she says. Mansur started dance classes (she recalls a creative movement class) when she was seven. By the time she got to high school, she was taking classes at a ballet school. As Mansur neared the end of high school, the ballet school brought in a modern dance teacher who Mansur describes with enthusiastic fondness “I loved her. She was a badass. She had long red hair. She rode in on a motorcycle, had this leather jacket, and taught us modern dance. I loved the freedom of it.”

Dance as a career, the possibility of it, the pathway one might take to arts as a profession was illuminated by Mansur’s high-school boyfriend’s mother, a modern dancer. “She had danced in Boston,” Mansur says, “and at that time, she was the producer of dance programming at WGBH, the public television channel. She took us in to watch shoots for some of the shows they were doing. I watched her programming and went to concerts where her colleagues were still performing.”

“I love the whole ‘Wow, you could really be anything and anyone.’ It seemed empowering for women. And then meeting [my boyfriend’s] mom and seeing how she made a career — danced and then was in a position where she was supporting arts programming and making a difference. So I said, ‘I want to major in dance and see what I can do.’”

After high school, Mansur made her way to Connecticut College where she studied with Martha Myers, the legendary dancer, arts educator, and dean at the school of the American Dance Festival. Mansur says that on day one Myers, who promoted somatic practices, “set up the conditions to really encourage us to think about, if you’re going to dance for your entire life, what are the holistic ways you can grow and learn artistic skills and life skills and health skills.”

Mansur stresses that the dance program at Connecticut College did more than train dancers to dance. She says Myers created a program for “helping students become better people and citizens of the world, whether they were going to be teaching or writing or performing.”

“While some [classmates] went on to New York and were aiming for dance company touring opportunities, I never really felt that was my path. I was not quite sure, but I appreciate that [Myers] was so inviting. I realized there are a lot of ways to dance. And this can be for your whole life, potentially, if you want.”

During January term of her senior year, Mansur interned with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis in New York. Her time there confirmed that the company dance model was not for her. Another internship opened up in Washington, D.C., at a studio theater for contemporary dance called Dance Place. Mansur intended to stay just for the summer after graduation but stayed in D.C. for about six years.

Diving In
Speaking of that time, Mansur describes a multi-faceted education in both dance and in arts management “We all were in one small office. I was running the box office working every weekend, seeing tons of shows. I was learning from all these incredible women — colleagues and teachers. They were running their own companies doing arts admin, teaching, making a life. It was just sort of seeping in. I didn’t really know yet how to make a life in dance, but I kept thinking, ‘this is where I’m supposed to be.”

While performing in D.C., Mansur was contacted about a performance opportunity back in New York with modern-dance choreographer Sara Rudner. She took it. Mansur stayed there for two years then returned to the D.C. area. “I decided to go to graduate school at that point to deepen some of my research interests in improvisation and somatics. I got an MFA at George Mason University which had somatics faculty members I really admired.”

Which is eventually how she made her way to Winona, Minnesota, where she lives now. “I didn’t plan to teach full time. But a job at Winona State opened up and I thought, ‘well, that would be different — get me off the east coast, get me immersed.’”

“The bluffs [in Winona] remind me a lot of western Mass. My parents came to visit, and they thought the same thing. I said to them, ‘okay, there’s beauty here. I feel like I could be here for a bit.”

“And the students [at Winona State University] were tremendous. A lot of folks are first-time college students in their family. So, open, pretty raw. I thought, ‘there’s a need here.’”

Many Hands
I met Sharon Mansur on a beautiful buggy weekday at Lake Park near Lake Winona. When I arrived, she was waiting at a table in the shade with a few well-worked journals arrayed on a table in front of her, and a box full of items she wanted to show me.

The time between her arrival to Winona and our visit was long — several years — and not at all linear. She left and came back. She stepped down from a tenured dance faculty position at the University of Maryland so she could have more time for her own projects.

Speaking about stepping down in hours at the University, responding to my suggestion that it could not have been easy, Mansur says “I reached a point where I couldn’t not do it. I definitely understand what you mean by it’s not an easy path. It can be hard — on relationships, on your body and so many other things. It’s what feels right. Like you asked me ‘what do you see for the next five years?’ Well, I’m super excited about my next project, but who knows, right? I see my job as just to make art and not think about anything else — devote myself to that. Listen and respond and gather and create and it will be what it is.”

She launched mansurdance in 2002, and, as she was contemplating her first dance work for mansurdance, reflecting back on the attacks of September 11, 2001, she began Off White, a project from a personal perspective, work with an Arab-culture focus, a work about her family and questions about her Arab identity.

“I think I finished that in 2006,” Mansur says, “different versions of it — solo, group, gallery, installation. I do tend to work in that way, kind of that multifaceted, research, creative process. I then often enjoy working within a project or theme, trying it in different versions, variations. ‘Oh, it’s a solo version, that’s a choreographed version. What’s an outdoor version? What’s a film version?’

Mansur’s process is connected to noticing and taking down what she notices. She likes to begin with new journals, containers where she can capture ideas as they arrive. When she’s working with other artists, she invites them to add to the journals as well. She invites me to look through them. I find handwriting from different hands — quotes, notes, photos, drawings, colors, images, ideas. As I explore each journal, I notice how they begin broadly then gradually focus on specific ideas as the performance date nears. What’s gathered later is related to the stage, the costumes, lighting, sound.

When I ask Mansur what’s on her mind these days, what’s next, her answers feel like a culmination of where her career has been leading her. Throughout our visit, Mansur spoke with admiration and closeness about the women, taking care to emphasize women, who have influenced and mentored her along the way, women like Martha Myers, Dance Place’s Director Carla Perlo, and Sara Rudner.

The collaborative approaches she took with her family, the collaborative approaches she saw at the public radio station, in her university studies, in her early years as a professional in D.C. and among the students she teaches, all inform a community orientation in Mansur’s work that, like her identity as an artist, seems both innate and nurtured.

She answers “I’m doing another SHIFT ~ performance salon series this year, and I jumped back in to be a performer. I jumped out last year to present more artists and hold more of the logistics, which I really loved, creatively. So, I’m hosting three salons coming up with three new artists here, who I haven’t worked with before. I’m really excited about that. I feel like we’re also more overtly questioning or experimenting with more recent community social issues, which is also exciting to me.”

I ask about being a Creative Economy Fellow, and Mansur says “I really love what Springboard for the Arts does. The financial support is amazing, but I also want to learn more from Springboard and connect with more artists. I’ve been craving that. The cohort has really been helpful.”

“I love where I am,” she concludes, looking around at the bluffs in the distance, the trees in the park, the lakeshore, the things she brought with her to share with me, “and I’m open to new and continued connections.”

Additional links
Sharon Mansur is on the Springboard for the Arts roster of Artist Career Consultants. Book time with Sharon here: https://springboardforthearts.org/consultants/