Brunilda Ruiz, an American ballerina of depth and passion who from the 1950 to the ’70s excelled in a broad range of 20th-century choreography as a founding member of both the Robert Joffrey Ballet and the Harkness Ballet, died on Aug. 13 at her home in Waldwick, N.J. She was 83.
The cause was cancer, her daughter Alicia Sutherland said.
Gifted with a highly dramatic presence, Ms. Ruiz also showed off the perfect classical form that Joffrey, one of America’s best ballet instructors, had instilled as her teacher and, later, as company director.
Her favorite role was in Joffrey’s homage to Romantic ballet, “Pas des Déesses,” which she danced with her husband, Paul Sutherland, who was also a member of the Harkness and Joffrey companies as well as American Ballet Theater. She also danced in the ballets of George Balanchine, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins and Gerald Arpino, among others.
Ms. Ruiz, who was born in Puerto Rico, was an important role model for future Hispanic ballet dancers, said Sasha Anawalt, the author of “Robert Joffrey” (1996). “She was in many regards a pioneer consciously or unconsciously — the epitome of grace and moral stamina,” Ms. Anawalt said in an email.
Like other Latin American dancers in American ballet, including Francisco Moncion, Alicia Alonso and Nicholas Magallanes, who had all been prominent since the 1940s at New York City Ballet or Ballet Theater, Ms. Ruiz was not viewed strictly as a “Latin” dancer. But on the Joffrey’s first tour in the South, in 1956, Ms. Ruiz discovered that restaurants would refuse to serve her — the group’s only Hispanic dancer — unless she was joined by other dancers.
Brunilda Ruiz was born on June 1, 1936, in Rincón, Puerto Rico, to Maria Francisca Perez De Rivera, a homemaker, and Eusebio Ruiz De Sanchez, a restaurant worker. Two of their nine children had died, making Brunie, as she was called, the youngest. Her father traveled back and forth to work on the mainland and from 1934 to 1936 moved his children over, a few at a time.
Brunie was six months old when she arrived. She grew up in Spanish Harlem and attended the High School of Performing Arts, where Joffrey, a promising young choreographer, taught her ballet.
He chose Ms. Ruiz and five other dancers — Arpino, Glen Tetley, John Wilson, Beatrice Tompkins and Dianne Consoer (Ms. Ruiz was the youngest) — to create his first ballet troupe. They set out in October 1956 on a national tour in a station wagon and a U-Haul truck. Robert Joffrey remained in Manhattan to teach and help with the tour’s finances.
This and the tours that followed were sometimes grueling: a series of one-night appearances that could be delayed by sudden obstacles like snowstorms. But audiences often waited for hours for the company to show up, and the tours introduced ballet to audiences around the country.
Ms. Ruiz married Mr. Wilson in the 1950s and gave birth in 1957 to their daughter, Mhari T. Wilson, who traveled with the troupe as her mother continued to dance. The couple divorced in 1967, and Ms. Ruiz married Mr. Sutherland the next year.
In addition to her husband and two daughters, Ms. Ruiz is survived by a brother, René; two sisters, Margo Ruiz and Aura Celia Gonzalez; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
A major change in Ms. Ruiz’s career took place in 1964 when Rebekah Harkness, the Joffrey Ballet’s chief financial backer, tried to assert artistic control. Robert Joffrey left to form a new Joffrey Ballet in 1965, and Mrs. Harkness formed the Harkness Ballet. Most of the dancers, including Ms. Ruiz, remained under contract to Mrs. Harkness.
Her decision to remain with the new Harkness Ballet displeased Joffrey, but he took her back briefly to his company in 1968. Writing in The New York Times, Clive Barnes welcomed her presence, taking note of her dazzling classical style in Balanchine’s “Raymonda Pas de Dix.”
“Simply because Miss Ruiz is such an exceptionally strong dramatic dancer, it seemed almost surprising to find her amid the coruscating brilliance of this Balanchine gloss upon Petipa and Glazunov,” he wrote, “and yet she danced it exquisitely.”
Ms. Ruiz retired from performing in 1971 but remained active for many years as a mentor, ballet mistress, choreographer and teacher.
As early as 1961, Claudia Cassidy, the dance critic of The Chicago Tribune and a fierce Balanchine partisan, had singled out Ms. Ruiz as an outstanding dancer with, she wrote, a special quality: “She dances right in the heart of the music.”