Flower City Ballet, a 34-year-old Rochester institution, is in the middle of a leadership change. The school's founder, Wayne Blatt — who is 75 and affectionately called Mr. B by his students and friends — is currently receiving end-of-life care at Strong Hospital's Palliative Care Unit and has willed his school to dancer and choreographer Erika Ruegemer.
As FCB prepares for its 11th annual production of "The Nutcracker," CITY spoke with Ruegemer and Blatt (at his bedside) as he reflected upon his dancing and teaching career, and connected with former and current students and dancers who have worked with him over the years.
Blatt was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, at which point Ruegemer and former student Hilary Ricigliano stepped up to assist with the annual "Nutcracker" performance that year. Blatt was taken off chemo this past summer, and soon after, doctors suggested that he should start looking into options for hospice care.
"But his goal has been to make it through this upcoming 'Nutcracker,' and I think he's still fighting for that," Ruegemer says. "He's a warrior."
Ruegemer, who currently functions as the school's creative director, has been teaching and running rehearsals with the help of others during Blatt's illness. She met Blatt about five years ago through a mutual friend while working at Java's Café, around the time that she founded her independent dance group, One Dance Co. Blatt identified her passion and drive, and allowed One Dance Co. to rehearse in Flower City's Space at its Cumberland Street location.
"He said to me, 'If I can't help anybody, what good am I?'" Ruegemer says. Beyond dance, Blatt has been an important mentor to Ruegemer over the years, which is a theme that is echoed by former and current students alike.
"Wayne came into my life at a time when I really needed a leader, someone who would not only direct me, but also give me tough love," says Rebekah von Rathonyi, who is artistic director at Central Illinois Ballet and Cornerstone Academy for Performing Arts. "I was fairly broken emotionally, and considered giving up my ballet career altogether. He took me under his wing, and became a tender loving father figure, mentor, and friend who firmly would not take no for an answer even when I wanted to give everything up."
Von Rathonyi joined Flower City Ballet as a company member and faculty member about 18 years ago, and joined the board soon after. She became assistant artistic director to help Blatt grow the school, company, and performances.
"We fought many times, but in the end, he was right," she says. "He always and still expects perfection to your best ability, mediocre work is not acceptable. He has strengthened my work ethic beyond its foundation."
Both von Rathonyi and her husband return every year to dance in FCB's "The Nutcracker," as well as other productions. They both also guest teach some master classes in the school.
Blatt himself began dancing in Batavia in 1958 when he took tap dancing classes with a friend. "It was just a fiasco, so I went across the street to talk to Ms. Haeusler," he says.
Lianna Haeusler, former Prima Assoulta of the National Theatre in Prague, who informed him that a career in ballet meant he would "live out of a suitcase, eat from a brown paper bag," and wouldn't make a lot of money. Undeterred, Blatt came under Haeusler's tutelage and served as Premier Dansuer of the Genesee Civic Ballet for 17 years.
In 1960, Blatt was recognized for his skill in Dance Magazine. "My dream was to go to New York City for 25 years and then come home and open a ballet school," he says. But when the opportunity arose at a master class in Williamsville — Blatt was singled out and encouraged by New York City Ballet's premier dancer, Jacques D'Amboise — Haeusler wanted to keep him local. Out of loyalty for his teacher, he remained in Western New York.
"It took me 43 years to get over it," he says.
After retiring as a dancer in 1976, Blatt was working as a server at the Genesee Valley Club when two strangers, the Burrows sisters, caught him dancing in the kitchen, and invited him to attend ballet classes with them. In 1982, Blatt formed a ballet company called The School of Classical Ballet at Rochester, which became Flower City Ballet in 1990.
The school instructs everyone from ages 3 to adults, and has an emphasis on inclusion. "We don't want to leave anybody out," Blatt says.
Clara Costello, a 16-year-old, has been dancing at Flower City Ballet since 2012, and this season will be her fourth "Nutcracker." When she began taking classes, Blatt recommended her for the adult level classes.
"I was terrified because everybody else was amazing and so much older and more experienced," she says. "I was on the verge of tears pretty regularly in that class. Everybody in the class was so supportive and Mr. B reassured me that I belonged there. It has been challenging and frustrating at times, but I've come back every week to learn more."
Visual artist Rork Maiellano began dancing at The Draper Center in its adult beginner drop-in ballet classes just three years ago, and last February auditioned for a piece that Ruegemer choreographed, which led to joining FCB's week-long summer intensive this past July, and two roles in the upcoming "Nutcracker" performance.
"By the time I was regularly dancing with Flower City, Wayne was already becoming too ill to teach," Maiellano says. "But from what I can gather, he has emphasized the importance of serious discipline and proper technique, while being dryly humorous, loving, and firm with his pupils."
"I think one should be strict, because it's that way the world over," Blatt says. "You have to be extremely precise. Teachers aren't out there to make fools out of you, they're out there to make you dancers."
Former student Joanne Lim, who began dancing with Blatt in 2009, describes Blatt's style of teaching a balance of discipline and encouragement "that makes his praises very impactful because we know he really means it."
She says that Blatt recognizes talent in everyone and gives them opportunities to grow. "For me, it was in choreography. Wayne is a really good dance choreographer himself but he had given students the chance to choreograph for dance performances."
Lim also cites Blatt's special love for classical music as having a unique effect on his teaching. "All the other dance teachers I have taken classes from focus on the dancing and hardly ever talked about the music," she says. "Mr. B also places emphasis on musicality. He tells us to use every count, every beat of music. Never to be ahead of the music or behind. His famous quote from his former teacher is "take the blood out of your body and fill it with music.'"
Going forward, "I intend to keep Wayne's vision alive while also incorporating the disciplines of modern dance," Ruegemer says. "Like any evolving organization or business, changes will be made. For example, I would like to implement a scholarship program and invite more of the community into our growth process. I'm a collaborator and firmly believe that we need each other."
In the long term, Ruegemer says she'd like to actualize a goal she's shared with Blatt, to develop a center to connect the dancers in Rochester, providing a hub for them to learn from a multitude of choreographers, artists, and the essential people in their field.
"They're been working very hard with her and she's been working very hard for them," Blatt says of Ruegemer and the students. "She's going to be just fine."
"The Nutcracker" will be performed on Saturday and Sunday, December 17 and 18, at 2 p.m. at East High School (1801 East Main Street). For more information, visit flowercityballet.org.