Donna Bonasera's Lifetime Pursuit of Art

 

Passion To Dance

Story By Maryanne Moon Boyen

   Angelo Bonasera was ahead of his time.

   In the early 1970s, before it was culturally commonplace to eat on the run, Angelo grabbed a bite to eat quickly three nights a week, so that he could drive his teenage daughter, Donna, to dance class in Hartford. Though he had already driven two hours round trip to Pratt & Whitney in Windsor Locks for work, he never balked at another two hour journey to bring Donna from their Torrington home to the Hartford Conservatory.

   Angelo was the only adult driver in the family of four and he was glad to help his youngest daughter follow her heart.

   Angelo played the drums and harmonica and was good-natured about supporting Donna’s artistic passion. “My dad was always telling a joke. I never heard him complain,” she said. He would visit relatives while she took class.

   Although he was certainly the cornerstone of her future success, she had to go on without him and learn to drive herself to class. Angelo Bonasera died of a heart attack in November of 1975 when he was merely 52-years-old and she was just a year out of high school.

   “With his death, life changed like that,” she said as she snapped her fingers. She carried on without her beloved chariot driver because she had to persevere. She danced and studied in Manhattan during the mornings and drove back to Torrington to teach class at the Torrington School of Ballet in the afternoon.

   “How did I handle it? I was petrified. For the most part, I cried all the way down, danced, and cried all the way back,” she said, “I prayed a lot.”

   She credits dance and its inherent discipline with nurturing the inner fortitude she needed to go forward in life, to strive and then thrive. .

   “What I have today is through complete dedication and commitment. I learned it early on through dance,” she said.

   What she has today, over thirty years after her dad drove her to class, is a bustling nonprofit business at 523 Main Street in Watertown dedicated to her passion, dance. She is the artistic director of Connecticut Dance Theatre and she lives a life dedicated to the art form. She has trained professional dancers as well as those who just want to dance for fun.

   She has been teaching in the Torrington and Greater Waterbury area for nearly thirty years and is the state director for National Dance Week. She draws world class master teachers to her studio and has an active network of former dancers who keep in touch.

   Students and parents call her “Ms.B.”

   Just as there was “Gus” the theater cat in “Cats”, she has a studio cat, whose name is Prima, as in ballerina. Bonasera’s constant companions are Charlie and Lilly, two black and white shitzu dogs who are as much a part of the school as mirrors and ballet barres.

   Bonasera is both tough and tender. Hers is a reserved temperament, perfectly suited for a classical venue. Her very nature, which quietly commands respect, is a magnet for modern day parents, as she is almost a foil to the glittering, flash-in-the pan, rude and toxic world of Britney Spears and Jerry Springer.

   Recently, at fall registration on a warm and wet summer night, Bonasera sat near the door of her studio which is tucked under the Country Cinema movie theater on Route 63 in Watertown.

   Wide-eyed children entered, following their parents, who came to fill out the necessary forms for dance instruction. One little girl, blonde and all of four years old, stepped in and peered right at the doe-eyed Bonasera.

   “Are you Ms. B?” she asked.

   “Yes, I am,” replied the mentor. “And what is your name?”

   Seasoned mothers in the room who had filled out umpteenth forms looked at each other. They knew a special relationship had just begun, whether the tiny dancer stayed a semester or right through her teens.

   The little girl had just crossed over the threshold into Bonasera’s almost sacred world of dance and would pass under her watchful eye, the one that can break the art of storytelling with one’s body into its smallest components, perhaps the slightest degree change in the way the chin extends from the neck or a subtle shift of the wrist.

   If she stays long enough, the child will be taught what all serious artists know-if you want to leap across a stage as if on air, you must practice and practice, day in and day out, again and again, five, six, seven, eight.

   Ms. B’s world is not a dance drive-through.

   If it is old-fashioned to believe in hard work, self-discipline and manners, then she is old-fashioned. “Dance is such a disciplined art form. You have to have self-discipline. We need to bring that back,” she said.

   She teaches theater etiquette, including care of facility. It is not uncommon to see her older students mopping floors. She wants her concentrated students to sew their own ribbons on their pointe shoes, to learn independence. For all their creativity, her young artists are taught to be as tough as soldiers, thus establishing a true springboard for their art.

   Bonasera considers that she is a lucky woman, to do what she loves. “I get to work with kids, be creative and help pull out their creativity,” she said.

   She believes that arts organization should collaborate with one another, wherever possible. Around Halloween, her organization presented a newly choreographed piece, “Dracula” in conjunction with the Woodbury Academy of Dance. Dancers from two different schools got to know each other and dance together to Randyl Errica’s choreography. The smell of paint was in the air; phones rang off the hook and the sold out show. She is now in the midst of “Clara and the Nutcracker” season, the school’s annual holiday production.

   It is also a busy time in the Greater Waterbury world of arts and she is pleased to be part of it. Cities like Waterbury and Torrington are hanging their hats on the arts and like many in the arts community, she has taken notice.

   “I have been in the best theaters all over the world. Two of the greatest are north and south of me on Route 8, the Warner and the Palace,” she said.

   The Depression-era art deco Warner Theater in Torrington was refurbished last year and the Palace Theater in Waterbury will open in a year, after a $30 million renovation. It has been dormant for decades.

   “How lucky can you be to be a child and dance on those stages?” she asks.

Tiny Dancer
   Bonasera did not need a 5,000-square foot-stage as the Palace Theater will have upon completion. She needed a big family, sheets and lawn furniture.

   “I think I came out of the womb dancing,” she said. Her mother, Rita Bonasera, has a family photograph of little Donna as a toddler walking across the bed “on releve.” (To the layman, releve means to rise, meaning that she was up on her toes.)

   She used her family and friends as props in her make-believe world. “I would put a bedspread across the garage door and put people in lawn chairs to watch. I was a little kid making it up,” she said.

   Bonasera has one older sister but her mother was one of fifteen children from the Bronx, so there was plenty of family and they were musical. Her aunt Dorothy was one of a group of singing nuns who actually performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. The fifteen holy sisters would pile into their station wagon, come to Bonasera’s home and sing Broadway show tunes in the living room. Nuns singing show tunes in the parlor might have been an omen that someone would pursue the arts.

   “My feet were constantly going. To this day, I can’t grocery shop without tapping out a tune,” she said.

   She has always been nuts about Frank Sinatra. She choreographed her first piece at age ten, to Sinatra’s tune, “Love is a tender trap.” When she was a little girl, she would follow her friend to dance class. Eventually, she got invited in to tap class. Then she attended the Hartford Conservatory as a young teen, with a focus on tap and jazz. When someone recommended that she study ballet, she found her way to Sharon Dante, artistic director of the Nutmeg Conservatory of the Arts.

   Dante said that the pretty teen was about fifteen when she arrived for ballet training.

   “She was a wonderful young lady. She showed a huge interest in dance,” said Dante. “She had a wonderful dance quality.” Dante said that Bonasera knew she would teach even then. She laughed at some of the memories from the old days. “Donna had a knack for stage dancing. I would choreograph the Hustle. Do you remember the Hustle?”

   Sharon Dante said that Bonasera’s parents were quite supportive of dance, but life changed when she lost her dad. “Donna had family responsibilities in addition to dance,” said Dante.

   Bonasera delivered milk in the wee hours before sunrise. “I was a milk woman one summer paying for my classes,” she said with a laugh. “I was out there at four in the morning.”

   She taught for Dante, who founded the Nutmeg Ballet in December of 1970. After high school, Bonasera commuted back and forth to New York to take classes and study dance, while she taught for Dante in the afternoons. Bonasera eventually became associate director of the Nutmeg Ballet before she branched off on her own in 1985. She was primarily responsible for the Torrington School of Ballet’s satellite studio, the Watertown School of Dance, located where she is today.

   At first, she had a for-profit business but made it a nonprofit in 1989. Next year, Connecticut Dance Theatre celebrates its 15th year as an arts school. “She has worked very, very hard to get where she is,” said Dante.

   Bonasera was fascinated with the Vaganova-Leningrad Pedagogical method of classical ballet, a combined knowledge of ballet from French, Italian and Russian choreographers, teachers and dancers that was complied and made into a system in 1956.

   She studied the method with John Barker, who was in New York. She also traveled to Moscow to study. “I traveled in eight different time zones. I lived this method,” she said.

   “The opportunity was there to go. I really had the best of both worlds,” said Bonasera.
Rick Doyle, an educator at the Taft School in Watertown, who also has an impressive resume as actor, director, writer and set designer in the world of theater, calls her “Donna Bonna.”

   “She creates magic onstage,” said Doyle. He said that he has known her for at least fifteen years. “She has to have choreographed 15, 20, 25 shows for me,” he said. He said that you can always trust her to have a cup of coffee in her hand and a smile on her face.

   “I try to make her laugh because she has such a radiant smile,” he said.

   Doyle says that she speaks to dancers with respect. “I don’t think there is a mean bone in her body. She is the kind of lady who will make what you do valuable to you. Her heart is in it,” he said.

   Barry Hughson, who just left his job as executive director of the Warner Theater to run a dance company in Manhattan, was a student of Bonasera’s when she was with the Watertown branch of the Nutmeg.

   “I have known her forever,” said Hughson. “You have to realize, she is sort of like a parent. Most of us spent more hours with her than with our parents from ages twelve to eighteen.”

   Hughson graduated from Nutmeg Ballet and danced for four years with the Washington D.C. Ballet. Like so many of her former students, he stays close. When asked why so many return to see her, or keep in touch as they live their adult lives, he said: “There is a lot of loyalty. She was also a nurturing, very loving person and always looked out for us.”

   He said that she could have gone anywhere to pursue her life’s work but chose to stay close to home.

   A small percentage of ballet students actually dance professionally; it is a bit like making it into the NBA. But many take the training and use it to follow their own paths. “Whether they become professional or not, the training stays with them,” said Bonasera.

   Vanessa Logan, who graduated from the concentrated program in 1993, is an example of a former student who uses her training in her career.

Invaluable Assistant
   It is almost impossible to talk about Donna Bonasera without mentioning Vanessa Logan. Logan, a trained dancer, is the administrative director of Connecticut Dance Theater, Inc. She is also the hot swing dancer featured on a huge billboard near Exchange Place in downtown Waterbury.

   Logan sits on many committees in Waterbury such as the one for the upcoming Main Street Initiative, a national program that helps complete downtown revitalization projects. If she is not at a Chamber event, she is helping with a festival or “power-networking” with the new Corridor Exchange group. She is part of the Greater Waterbury arts roundtable group that has been meeting since last spring.

   She teaches dance curriculum in the Watertown school system and a new Pilates class on Tuesday mornings and evenings at the dance school. She has been known to work furiously at her desk all day and then don a Mouse Queen outfit for a performance at night. Vanessa arrived at the studio at age eleven, in seventh grade. She trained throughout her middle and high school years in Region 14 schools.

   After graduating from Nonnewaug High School, she auditioned for the Juilliard School in New York. There were 600 people in that audition and Juilliard accepted 1%, six of them. Logan was one of those six. At the end of the audition, they pulled her aside and asked who trained her.

   An injury curtailed her training at the prestigious school after two years, but she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Dance with an emphasis on movement therapy at Boucher College in Maryland. When she returned home, Bonasera hired her. “I scooped her up,” said Bonasera with a laugh.

   With the help of the Waterbury Foundation, which supports the arts, Bonasera was able to hire Logan. “They understand that with the arts you need operational help,” said Bonasera.

   Logan has many memories of her years as a student. “Working with Mr. Yagudin was a highlight,” she said. Shamil Yagudin is the Ballet Master of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and he has been a guest master teacher at CDT every summer since 1989, when the school became a nonprofit arts school. “It was a huge privilege and an honor. We couldn’t even fathom that he was our teacher. It was such an incredible opportunity,” she said.

   She said it is equivalent to having Dan Marino coach your high school football team. Logan said that still, to this day, when Mr. Yagudin walks in the door she is awestruck. She said it is interesting to watch the current group of concentrated students who are so used to summers with him that he is as familiar to them as a beloved grandfather. “I still feel like that 14-year-old girl when I see him,” she said, “with that awe and respect.”

   Logan says that she feels obliged to bring the love of dance to others. One of the programs that Connecticut Dance Theatre is known for is “Dance Into the Community” where students visit and perform at schools, health care centers and other community hubs. “We are privileged to study here. My parents supplied me with a supplemental education that, for me, ended up being my career,” she said.

   Shamil Yagudin has not been the only world class artist who has frequented the Connecticut Dance Theatre. Chet Walker, a disciple of Bob Fosse and Frank Hatchett, master of jazz at Broadway Dance Center in New York have taught master classes there.

   Ted Levy of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, led his class out into the street, said Bonasera. Performers from Cats have taught the students. There was excitement in the air when Jacques D’Amboise of the New York City Ballet came to Watertown. Victor Reilly, a Watertown resident who has been a frequent guest instructor, was an original member of “Oklahoma”, and ran his own studio in Forest Hills for many years.

   “The intensity and caliber of artists that come in here are world class,” said Bonasera.
Artists In Downtown Waterbury.

   For a city whose lifeblood was hot, molten brass, it almost seems out of character to have $190 million dollars in state money in new buildings, with art as a major theme. But if you ask local musician Bob Mobilio he will tell you tales about Waterbury’s rich musical history, when it was known for great live music. And, as Fran Brennan, director of the University of Connecticut-Waterbury branch said at the recent dedication ceremony, “East Main Street was once our Broadway.”

   Hopefully, it will be again with the 2004 opening of the $57 million Waterbury Performing and Fine Arts Magnet School and the $30 million Palace Theater. In truth, Seven Angels Theater, a regional equity theater, has kept Waterbury on the cultural map for thirteen years, as the only theater on theater row in recent history. There have been plenty of politicians and construction workers wearing hard hats, but what about the artists? When will they arrive and what will be their part? Will artists like Bonasera eventually be part of projects that seem to be custom-built for them?

   Artists hold a very special place in society because they are the curators of the stories we tell to make sense of the world. Noted mythology expert Joseph Campbell held artists in high esteem; he felt they were the guardians of myth.

   Former professional dancer Jamie Dlugokinski said, “The ability to help people escape is a gift. The artist can lift the spirit and awaken within each of us the truest sense of who we are as people and where we can go, even if it is only while the curtain is raised.”

   Like many artist who are taking notice of the art-centered activity in Waterbury, Bonasera is excited to see what will happen for artists like her. She placed dance-themed billboards in downtown Waterbury and on the highway when the downtown renovation projects really started to take shape. She and Logan are active on many committees in town.

   Bonasera is part of a revived unofficial consortium of local arts organizations called the Greater Waterbury Arts Roundtable, which started meeting in the spring of 2003. Some of the other groups are The Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, the Waterbury Foundation, Brass City Ballet, Thomaston Opera House, Seven Angels Theatre, The Mattatuck Museum, the Woodbury Academy of Dance, the Palace Theater Group, the Greater Waterbury Youth Symphony and Shakesperience Productions, Inc. The group is having its second presentation on Saturday, December 6, 2003 at the Mattatuck Museum.

   When asked about the involvement of local arts groups in the Palace Theater, board member Attorney Tim Moynahan spoke of a place where there is room for everyone. He said, “All involved, that I am aware of, envision an inclusive Palace Theater which both welcomes and invites the participation of local and even regional arts groups. I can assure you the underlying sentiment which serves to motivate us all is that the Palace ought to be a lightening rod which attracts talent not only from visible and well-recognized sources but from every nook and cranny of the community.”

   He continued, “ We share the conviction that it ought to be a venue which will be a catalyst for the celebration of all cultures which reside here, a place even of spiritual nourishment which can provide hitherto unavailable opportunity for talent and in the process build bridges of understanding and cooperation among disparate groups but especially children and teens. The theater is meant for all, not a select few, and that we expect to encourage and support performances which will entertain, educate and often inspire. Think of Frank Sinatra singing ‘High Hopes.’”

   The relationship between the arts magnet school and artists remains to be seen. Ironically, Bonasera, who is capable of putting dancers on stages all over the world, might not be allowed to teach sixth graders in Waterbury because of the state’s certification requirements.

   Nancy Pugliese, Chief, Bureau of Certification for the State of Connecticut, said, “We do certify dance educators. We are currently drafting the criteria for that unique certification.”

   Yet, artists are currently in many schools through grant-funded programs. Because it is a magnet school with a lottery system to get in, Bonasera assumes the dance program will be a general immersion program, by definition.

   “Dance would be an appreciation/recreation level if it’s done by lottery,” she said. “Let’s look at a sixth grader who has had no dance training. He or she takes class twice a week for the school year. That’s about 30 weeks, which is 60 hours. Dancers here put in 60 hours in a few weeks.”

   Like others in the arts community, she is glad to help in any way. Teaching children dance is what she does. Local arts groups have offered their expertise since the magnet school was just a drawing on paper. The school board has union issues and educational requirements to worry about. It also wanted to have a principal in place before curriculum is finalized. Alan Kramer was just hired and he has an extensive arts background. More shall be revealed as he settles in.

   A few nights a week, Marty Scully waits in the lobby of Connecticut Dance Theatre, ready to drive his teenage daughter, Lindsay home, twenty minutes away. Tom O’Keefe of Plymouth also waits for his daughter, Caitlin.

   Parents drive from as far away as Hartford, Bethany, Bristol and Oxford to have their dancers trained at Connecticut Dance Theatre. Donna Bonasera has come full circle from the days when her father, Angelo, drove her to class. She is now the reason a dad will drive an extra hour for his daughter.