If you asked Pedro Pupa why he always had such a big smile on his face, he would dazzle you with an even bigger one and say, in imperfect English that bore the charming accent of his native Brazil:
"It's sunny outside. It's a beautiful day. The birds are singing. We have food, we have shelter. We are dancing. Why should we not be happy?"
That's what friends and colleagues tried to recall as they gathered on the terrace of The Ringling's Ca' d' Zan mansion at twilight Monday to drop white roses into the crystal blue Sarasota Bay waters and speak choked words in remembrance of the 20-year-old Sarasota Ballet dancer killed last week while riding his bicycle home from the studio.
"With Pedro, everything was always beautiful — every day was beautiful, every person was nice, every dancer was great," said principal dancer Ricardo Graziano, who is also from Brazil, of the diminutive Pupa. "But he meant it. He was completely genuine. There was so much optimism in that little boy."
"What a lot of people would take for granted was what he paid the most attention to," added Calvin Farias, one of Pupa's roommates and a fellow company member, who was with the dancer when the accident occurred.
Pupa died hours after he was struck by a delivery truck June 4 while riding his bicycle on Bayshore Road near the company's headquarters at the FSU Center for Performing Arts. A preliminary report released by the Sarasota Police Department said the truck was driven by Willie G. Burns, 58, of Tampa, who was making a right turn into a service entrance at the museum and did not see Pupa. Burns was charged with failure to yield the right of way to a bicyclist.
Genevieve Judge, a spokesperson for SPD said it will be several weeks before a full accident report is released, but several company sources confirmed Pupa died of massive internal injuries.
About 100 mourners gathered at the site of the accident Monday night to lay flowers beneath a nearby tree, then walked through The Ringling Visitor's Center, where each was handed an LED candle and a long-stemmed white rose. The solemn group proceeded through the Ringling grounds to the mansion, where they signed a guest book that will be given to Pupa's family, listened to tributes from Sarasota Ballet staff and dancers and gave a sparkling cider toast "To Pedro!" before tossing the roses into the waters of the Bay.
The news of the tragedy circulated quickly last week via social media, causing a wave of shock and angst through the ranks of the company's dancers, many of whom have left Sarasota for the summer. Some updated their Facebook statuses with pictures of Pupa and wrote poignant tributes to his eternal cheerfulness, energy and zest for life.
Artistic Director Iain Webb, tending to company business in his native England, heard the news by phone from his wife, Margaret Barbieri, the company's assistant artistic director, who held a vigil at the Blake Medical Center in Bradenton as Pupa underwent emergency surgery after the accident. Managing Director Mary Servian was contacted while on her honeymoon in Greece. Graziano was charged with the unenviable task of contacting Pupa's mother, Maria Cristina Petrucci Sanches, father, Carlos Aurélio Tápias Pupa, and brother, Felipe Moraes, in Sao Pablo.
Barbieri said the company is making plans to create a scholarship in Pupa's name, in collaboration with his aunt's school of ballet in Brazil. Another celebration of Pupa's life will be held after all the company members return for the start of the 2014-2015 season, she said.
Last week, Pupa had been particularly happy to be back in class and dancing again, after sitting out several months earlier this year with a knee injury. Barbieri recalled how he smiled and waved to her not long before he set out on his bicycle to go home that day.
"I am so happy to have that memory," she said through tears. "This is devastating and heartbreaking, but there's also an element of disbelief. You just don't want to accept that it's true."
Pupa, who studied at the Miami City Ballet School, came to the company in the fall of 2012, after auditioning for Webb and Barbieri in Sarasota. Despite the timing — the 2012-2013 season had already begun — they immediately offered him a job.
"There was never any question," Barbieri said. "We could see his talent. We had to offer him a contract."
Though a member of the corps de ballet, Pupa had danced prominent roles in several ballets, including Antony Tudor's "Gala Performance," Frederick Ashton's "Facade" and performed the solo from "Flames of Paris" during the company's 2013 spring gala. In December of 2012, he originated the role of Fritz, Clara's brother, in the circus version of the "Nutcracker" created by Matthew Hart. He was unable to dance it for a second time last year due to his injury, which required arthroscopic surgery.
Though his command of English was still shaky — "He said 'chicken' whenever he meant 'kitchen,'" said Farias — his technical prowess was not, said Gabriela Johnson, a friend and fellow corps member, who admired Pupa's ability to turn and jump.
One day, he approached Johnson after she had left the studio and said, "I hope you don't mind — I borrowed your pointe shoes." A brief video taken by another company member showed Pupa flawlessly performing a series of double fouetté turns on pointe, a challenge for even an accomplished female dancer and something most male dancers would never attempt.
Pupa shared an apartment with Farias and fellow dancers Patrick Ward and Edward Gonzales, where he regularly watched ballet videos to expand his encyclopedic knowledge of dance and "Grey's Anatomy" to improve his English. He also enjoyed visiting Farias's father's home in Ellenton, where he fed the ducks on a nearby pond, identified every flower, insect and tree and spent time in the "chicken" trying out new recipes. Though they were "complete opposites" — Pupa was tidy, organized and disciplined, and he is not — Farias said "We became, to be honest, a family. He was a part of my every day life."
Farias also recalled the day when Webb introduced Pupa to Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was visiting for the Ringling International Arts Festival. Pupa was thrilled to discover the legendary dancer was no taller than himself.
Sara Sardelli, who performed with Pupa during his first season before she retired to become the company's outreach director, was among the many who noted Pupa's generosity and how it was "never fake, always from the heart."
"He was just a dream to be around," she said.
Graziano said Pupa eagerly jumped in when he needed an extra male dancer for a piece he choreographed on conservatory students and Johnson recalled how Pupa carefully repinned each headdress on dozens of tiny students before a school recital so the chin straps would be more comfortable for them.
Pupa had a childlike sense of humor too and regularly sent friends "silly" Snapchat pictures (a fast way to share temporary photos) — holding an enormous fan at a local Walmart, or wearing a silly expression while holding up a quirky toy.
"He was the light in the room, just the happiest kid," said Graziano.
A quote on Pupa's Facebook page, written in Portuguese, captures the dancer's loving nature.
"It says, 'For those of you that hate me, I love you,'" Graziano translates. "'And I would not be half of what I am without you.'"