TORRINGTON — Quick quiz: What do Russian dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova and American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland all have in common with Torrington?
Answer: They have all worked with Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory’s newest faculty members Michael Limoli and Denise Warner Limoli.
“In the course of my career as a pianist and classical clarinetist, I’ve played for Baryshnikov,” Michael said during an interview that included his wife, Denise, and Nutmeg founder Sharon Dante. “I’ve played for Gelsey Kirkland and many of the biggest stars in the ballet world, and I am so lucky,” he said.
Denise has been with the Nutmeg Ballet since its beginning 49 years ago, first as a dancer, then a teacher, then staging repertoire and coaching the Nutmeg dancers. But until recently, both Michael and Denise helped out at Nutmeg intermittently while pursuing dance- and music-related careers in other parts of the country. They both retired a few months ago, and thanks to Torrington Savings Bank and Nutmeg they bought a new home in Torrington and joined the permanent faculty of Nutmeg Ballet.
“Denise was the first star of Nutmeg,” Sharon said. “Actually, she was the first guest artist of the Nutmeg.”
“I met Sharon when I was at the Hartford Ballet,” Denise said. It was the mid-’60s. They formed a close friendship. In 1969, Denise was living in Hartford and came to Torrington to see her friend Sharon’s new dance school, Nutmeg Ballet, then located on Migeon Ave.
“She was doing an extraordinary job after having studied the Vaganova syllabus,” Denise said. “I could see that this school and its training was going to be something pretty wonderful. We started working together. I helped teach a little bit, but my first contribution to the Nutmeg organization was as a dancer, as a performer. Students were young and Sharon wanted to show a professional level of training to her students and the audience.”
Sharon added, “We wanted to show our young students where we were going. We weren’t there yet.” As the dance students matured and gained skills, Denise began performing less and teaching repertoire more. “And she’s been doing it ever since,” Sharon said.
In the early ’80s, Denise Warner met Michael Limoli, an accomplished classical clarinetist and pianist. He has performed at Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center. He was also trained in classical ballet in the Indiana University Ballet Theatre. Denise and Michael married in 1982.
“I graduated from Indiana University with degrees in music and ballet and went to New York City and was offered a contract at Harkness Ballet,” Michael said. He later returned to Indiana University and earned a doctorate in music and ballet.
One year he accompanied Denise on one of her trips to Nutmeg. He said, “I started talking to Sharon, and the wheels in her mind are always turning. She said, ‘I always wanted to have live music in my ballet studio.’” Sharon had her Wurlitzer piano moved to her studio, then on Water Street, and Michael began playing during lessons. “Sharon and I became kind of a duo. We understood exactly what we wanted,” he said.
Michael’s musical skills were an important catalyst — along with generous benefactors — for transforming Sharon’s dance school into the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts almost 20 years ago.
Michael is also an author. His book, “Marina Svetlova: A Tribute,” just released in January by Authorhouse, celebrates the career of one of the most influential ballerinas of the twentieth century. The book is available on Amazon.
In 1984, Denise was one of several coaches for Victoria Mazzarelli, a Nutmeg student who was about to compete in the New York International Ballet Competition. Victoria — who is now Nutmeg’s artistic director — won the only gold medal in that competition and was presented with the award by Tony Randall and Gwen Verdon.
“When she won we just screamed and yelled like everybody else,” Denise said. “It was very exciting. It was the culminating point of many years that Sharon and I worked together.”
“It was wonderful,” Victoria said later by phone. “I mean, she taught us so much. It was a pretty amazing time and it worked out well for me.”
Fast forward! Now, Denise, Victoria and other Nutmeg choreographers are working on the 2019 Spring Studio Series, a showcase for the talented Nutmeg students, to be held at the Conservatory in March.
“Every year we would try to get Denise here anyway, but now that she lives nearby she has time to do more coaching,” Victoria said. “There’s some real quality work going on with all the teachers, and Denise brings a knowledge of traditional, classical ballet, which is so important for the kids.”
Denise is working with Nutmeg’s resident coach Eleanor D’Antuono to stage excerpts from “Paquita,” a 19th century ballet by French composer Édouard Deldevez and Paris Opéra ballet master Joseph Mazilier. “There’s a corps de ballet of eight women,” Denise said. “I have six demi-soloists, women, a principal ballerina and a principal man.” Eleanor is staging the pas de trois from a different act of “Paquita,” which will be inserted, Denise said.
“I love ‘Paquita’,” Victoria said. “The music is beautiful, and it’s very styled. There’s a certain style to it and Denise is a great help with that.”
For Sharon, having Denise and Michael back with Nutmeg on a more permanent basis is the realization of yet another of her many goals. “We are feeling good that we are here at this time of our lives,” she said. “We are the senior group now, as I step back, and Vicky is center stage. We are a little upstage left or right or something, just watching over. We are just there to be the guardian angels.”
“As it should be,” Denise and Michael said, almost in unison.
“As it should be,” Sharon said.
The Spring Studio Series will be performed March 20, 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. and March 23 at 2 p.m. Performances will also feature students from the Torrington School of Ballet, works by MOMIX, live music by local jazz ensemble JINQS and more. All performances will be in the Premiere Studio of the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, 58 Main St., Torrington. For information and tickets, call the Warner Theatre at 860-489-7180 or go to warnertheatre.org.