TAMPA — Nine years ago this month, dancer Lynn Marie Ruse glimpsed the audience through the curtain at the Gorilla Theatre.
Ms. Ruse grew up in Tampa and had returned to her hometown frequently from New York, where she co-founded Freefall, a dance company specializing in abstract storytelling. The company turned into an established presence in the New York dance scene. Critics raved about the creativity and range of physical expression. The Village Voice called Ms. Ruse "a stunning, smoldering performer."
Ms. Ruse considered Tampa an alternate home base. She taught master classes at the University of South Florida, her alma mater, Hillsborough Community College and Blake High School's performing arts magnet program. She choreographed productions of Why the Y in Ybor? and Tampa Tongues.
But on that night, Tampa didn't seem to care about her brand of abstract expressionism. Only two customers occupied the seats. Ms. Ruse and Freefall co-founder Lynn Brown refused an offer to cancel the show. In one of the pieces that followed, she glided across a thin mattress with another dancer, all muscularity and power and need over the woodwinds of Ravel's Boléro. Brown followed with a solo, shuffling out a drumbeat while reciting a speech by Gen. George S. Patton.
For Ms. Ruse the show was a success, a concept she defined as the ability to tell abstract stories for a living.
Ms. Ruse, one of the best known dancers and choreographers to come out of Tampa, died Aug. 31 in New York of lung cancer. She was 48.
She was deeply influenced by the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch, who promoted and pioneered a concept known as dance theater.
"Some things that people found ugly she thought were very beautiful," said Brown, 52. "Other things that other people thought were beautiful she thought were trash."
They met at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, after Ms. Ruse had studied dance in London. She was friendly and talked a mile a minute. They started collaborating, Brown said, a process made smoother by following one rule: "No one could say something is stupid until we tried it out."
The pair painstakingly built up a repertoire of work. Reviewers invoked avant-garde playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht or Samuel Beckett, and praised the team for delving into serious subjects with a disarming humor.
"When you read poetry you fill in between the lines," said Lorelei Bayne, 48, a Tampa native and a longtime friend of Ms. Ruse's who is now the dance coordinator at California State University Sacramento. "It gives you a lot of freedom."
Bayne recruited Ms. Ruse to conduct classes at Cal State, where "she had a way of making really abstract work accessible to students."
Ms. Ruse also taught dance through the Lincoln Center Institute and yoga on her own. She performed at the Loft Theater in Tampa and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, and taught guest classes at Blake through the Arts Council of Tampa.
It was an unlikely outcome for someone who did not start dancing seriously until college.
Lynn Marie Ruse was born in Daytona Beach in 1965 but grew up in Tampa. She graduated from Chamberlain High and USF, where she majored in English.
Sara Munson Deats, an emeritus USF English professor, remembered Ms. Ruse as "not only a brilliant student but a luminous presence."
Ms. Ruse met Bayne at USF. The two friends later roomed together in Greenwich Village, where Ms. Ruse juggled several jobs and got by on little sleep.
"It wasn't that she had insomnia, she just didn't want to miss anything," said Val Day, 50, a New York talent agent who also knew Ms. Ruse in Tampa.
She never married but was recently linked romantically to dancer Toby Billowitz, who played Joey the horse in the Broadway production of War Horse.
Her second bout with cancer in recent years cut short a full life. "She was my greatest artistic influence," said Brown. "It wasn't about a flawless, easy, facile performance. It was about overcoming something.
"That's what life was. That's the way she lived her life."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.