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Ruth Wheeler, 93, cofounder of Dance Collective

She cofounded the troupe in her 50s and danced until age 63. She cofounded the troupe in her 50s and danced until age 63.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 17, 2011

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Scientific American is not high on the list of potential source material for choreographers, but the magazine inspired Ruth Wheeler to create dances that dazzled audiences around Boston for years.

“The Flying Leap of the Flea’’ blended stodgy spoken narrative with the movement of bodies clustered like tiny insects.

Mrs. Wheeler’s dancers, “looking as miniature as possible with their tiny fists and little kicking feet, bounce in neatly mechanical scrambles over the stage,’’ Globe reviewer Laura Shapiro wrote in a 1977 review. While the dance unfolds, “a voice reads aloud from a dutiful description in Scientific American,’’ the review continued.

As years and performances passed, the combination never failed to entertain.

“The dry Scientific American narration about the role elastic protein plays in powering the flea’s jump is still funny when juxtaposed with twitching, kicking, deadpan dancers,’’ Globe reviewer Christine Temin wrote 11 years later.

Mrs. Wheeler - who cofounded Dance Collective, Boston’s longest-running modern dance troupe - died June 23 at her home in Lexington. She was 93.

“She had quite a sense of humor as a choreographer,’’ Dawn Kramer of Roslindale, another Dance Collective cofounder, said of dancing in “Flea’’ with others from the troupe. “We were wearing bubble wrap as vests; as flea carapaces they would pop and squeak as we fell to the floor.’’

Mrs. Wheeler’s “Quarks, Leptons, Gluons, and Diverse Characters: A Trip into Particle Physics,’’ also had its roots in a Scientific American article.

The dance “has a Woody Allen quality,’’ Temin wrote in 1979. “The quarks, etc., are earnest, trembling little fellows in sleek black suits.’’

Already in her 50s when she helped found Dance Collective, Mrs. Wheeler “was an incredible role model,’’ Kramer said. “She had impeccable technique and strength, a beautiful stage presence.

Dancing in performances until she was 63, Mrs. Wheeler often was the envy of her much-younger colleagues and not just for her creativity and experience.

In a 1978 interview with the Globe, when Mrs. Wheeler was 57, a grandmother, and still svelte, Kramer said it was “ironic that Ruth, being our senior member, happens to have our most perfect body.’’

The company’s founders often choreographed with each other in mind, and Mrs. Wheeler’s agility at jumping, well into her sixth decade, was often featured.

“She was incredibly youthful,’’ Kramer said. “She was thin and wiry and strong and energetic.’’

That was true on stage and off, long before Mrs. Wheeler cofounded Dance Collective.

“She was a pretty powerful woman for somebody who was being a mom and a dancer in the 1950s, when being a mom was great and being a dancer was not really very cool at all,’’ said Mrs. Wheeler’s daughter, Ann Saunderson of Loudon, N.H.

Ruth Siren was born in Lincoln, Neb., and moved with her family to Casper, Wyo., when she was young. As she grew up, tuberculosis took the lives of her father and her sister.

“I think part of what made her strong was that her father and sister died within a year of each other when she was very young,’’ her daughter said. “Her mother had tuberculosis, as well, and was in and out of sanatoriums, and she was shifted around among her mother’s sisters and changed schools a lot.’’

With aunts in Indiana and California, Mrs. Wheeler traveled often in her youth. On one trip from Indiana to visit extended family on the West Coast, she met Edwin Wheeler, the best friend of one of her cousins.

He was in medical school, and she was studying at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., when they began dating. Mrs. Wheeler majored in dance and biology, pursuits she would merge years later in her science-based choreography.

She also studied in New York City with renowned dancers including Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey.

She married Wheeler in 1942. As a honeymoon, they traveled across the country to Boston, where he had a cardiology residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Because of World War II, “gas was being rationed, so they got gas coupons as wedding gifts,’’ their daughter said.

The couple purchased one of the houses in the Six Moon Hill section of Lexington that was designed by The Architects Collaborative.

Mrs. Wheeler taught at the Cambridge School in Weston, directed a dance program at the deCordova Museum in Lincoln for more than a decade and created a dance program for children and adults at a modern dance school in Lexington.

She also served on state arts panels for Massachusetts and Rhode Island and spent several years on the board of trustees for the American College of Greece in Athens.

When Mrs. Wheeler helped found Dance Collective in 1973, “she was incredibly youthful,’’ Kramer said. “She was looking for something to do because her children were grown up and her children were our age. Yet we felt like colleagues. It didn’t feel like a parental relationship; it felt like a peer relationship.’’

By then, Mrs. Wheeler was in her 50s and had been dancing most of her life.

“She had been through a lot,’’ Kramer said. “She had already had a couple of spinal surgeries, but she was a bounce-back person. She kept her technique and body in shape.’’

In 1983, for the Dance Collective’s 10th anniversary, Mrs. Wheeler joined another older dancer and a pair of younger dancers in “Seasonal Yields,’’ a piece choreographed by her colleague Martha Armstrong Gray.

“Gray treated these two 60ish dancers without stereotypical references to age, without false reverence,’’ Temin wrote in a Globe review. “Their movements were often the same as the younger performers’: The dance emphasized the similarities among dancers no matter what their ages, rather than the strangeness of dancers who have grown old.’’

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Wheeler leaves another daughter, Lizbee of Bristol, R.I.; two grandsons; and two great-granddaughters.

A memorial service for Mrs. Wheeler and her husband, who died in February, will be held at 11 a.m. today in Follen Church in Lexington.

“She was an energizer,’’ Kramer said. “She had such a vivacious smile and aura around her.’’

Dance Collective, which remained a force in Greater Boston’s performance circles decades after its founding in 1973, was more than an artistic collaboration, and Mrs. Wheeler was a significant reason why the troupe was so close.

“She helped us through a lot of things emotionally,’’ Kramer said. “I think she was the magnet that drew us together and made us feel like family.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.