S.6. E.6: Dance Me to the Liberal Arts

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus dance professor Michele Rusinko.
Posted on December 30th, 2020 by

Gustavus Professor of Theatre and Dance Michele Rusinko on how she went from science to dance while never quite leaving science behind, the happenstance that led her to Gustavus, her choreographic process, Positive Psychology, teaching dance, and the liberal-arts wellspring of her artistry.

Season 6, Episode 6: Dance Me to the Liberal Arts

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

“I think we are living through an extremely challenging time,” observed my colleague, Michele Rusinco, of the theatre and dance department to the campus newspaper in December, 2019. “As artists, I believe it is our responsibility, not only to hold up a mirror to the world we are experiencing, it is also our responsibility to paint, to compose, to choreograph works of art, to present, or provide a representation of the world as it can be, the world we aspire to live in.” Michele’s observation resonates even more now than it did almost a year ago, and did along with her research in positive psychology and resilience, which the current pandemic is sorely testing, make me especially eager to speak with her at this moment of crisis for global public health, US democracy and the arts themselves.

Michele joined the Gustavus faculty in 1988, and quickly made her mark as not only a talented professor and choreographer, but also a highly regarded and effective campus leader, including for many years, as chair of her department. A graduate of St. Olaf College, Michele earned her MFA from Arizona State University. In addition to teaching and commenting about dance, she choreographs it with students and professional dancers, including herself, and dances to other’s choreography. She founded and directs the two student dance ensembles at Gustavus, The Matching Tights Dance Company and Apprentice Dance Company. She has traveled and taught in Sweden, Ireland, Israel, and China.

Among her honors and awards, she’s held the college’s Ed Graff and Ethel Johnson chair in fine arts, and received funding from the Minnesota Dance Alliance. As you will hear, she exudes learning for life, and it’s my great pleasure to have her on the podcast. Welcome Michele.

Michele Rusinko:

Hello, Greg. So happy to be here.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks. We go way back, right?

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You came in ’88, I came in ’86. I should maybe note that our spouses, in your case Bob, my case Kate, we have also worked with Gustavus, Kate in the history department, Bob in advancement, so the four of us have known us for a long time, and it’s great to have you in this venue. So, how are things going, first of all? How do you teach dance in a pandemic? Are you teaching online or hybrid? What are you doing?

Michele Rusinko:

In the beginning, well, we started out all online. Then, when the college was giving us the option to meet in-person, I met in a hybrid form. My modern one class, which had 22 people in it, we were fortunate to have the brand new, large, Gardner laboratory theatre. So, over the summer, the technical director taped out 10 foot squares on the floor. The first day of class, as half of the class came in, half would meet on Monday, half would meet on Wednesday, I said, “Pick your spot. It’s where you’re going to be. If we have to do contact tracing, you want to know who’s in the squares around you.” So, I taught in-person, everybody one day a week. Then, I recorded combinations and things to be working on when they were not in class.

We worked with what I would call axial movement a lot, where you’re standing in one place, and we didn’t have the opportunity to go flying across the floor, and we couldn’t do any partner work, of course. But, one thing that was challenging and interesting is, I think everybody who teaches dance, everybody who takes the dance class, feels like, “Yes, I get a little more muscle mass and I get stronger,” but often they notice a real improvement in their emotional wellbeing. So, when Gustavus moved to the new curriculum that included a wellbeing requirement, we said, “We’re going to go for this.”

So, most of our dance classes also include a wellbeing requirement, which that was particularly interesting this fall because, it gave me a structure to really integrate the wellbeing and resiliency work into the movement work, just articulate it and really make it evident to the students, and encourage them to do some reflecting on how they were experiencing it. So, I would rather teach in person, but we’re a creative lot and the students are creative, and we have managed it. I think I’ve seen some really wonderful growth and development with the students in really challenging times.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s funny, I couldn’t agree more about our students. I think from what I read, most students across the country, there’s all this press about professors being anxious and students being anxious, but honestly, both last spring and this fall too, I would say most of the students are stepping up. They’ve made the adjustment, they’re working, they’re getting something out of our courses, whether online, hybrid, in-person. So, I’m a little… I resist what seems to be the dominant about all this anxiety. Sure, there’s anxiety, but there’s also a lot of learning and creativity in it. Well, you were there during the tornado in ’98-

Michele Rusinko:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

… And you know what that was like. I want to come back later to this business about emotion and dance as you will see, and I know that is important to you in all kinds of ways, and I find it very interesting. Before we do, before we get there, let’s go back in time, there’s a historian here. So, if I’m remembering correctly, you grew up in… Did you grow up in Minneapolis? Is that right?

Michele Rusinko:

Yes, South Minneapolis.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, South Minneapolis. Where at in South Minneapolis?

Michele Rusinko:

16th and Morgan.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, okay. You know it well, yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Because, Kate, you know Kate and I are downtown now, downtown Minneapolis. But, let’s talk a little bit. So, you went to the arch enemy institution in St. Olaf in our regions, and I’m kidding, it’s a fabulous school and another great liberal arts college in this state. What drew you there? Why not to U, for example?

Michele Rusinko:

Well, I’ll be honest, and I’ll wind back the story even further. When I was about four or five, my next door neighbor, Sandy, took tap ballet and acrobats. So, I begged my parents to do that, and I took a class, and I found home. I found my calling in life. It’s hard to imagine that a child that small just really landed in a way that was so profound. I think in all truth, that time period would have been very under the ’50s, beginning of the ’60s. Had it been 20 years later, I would have probably received a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, because I was the one who was doing cartwheels in the living room. But, when I was in the studio, and nobody told me to sit still, and I was rewarded for being physically active, it just was like home. I just knew I was home, and I really held on to that.

As I was in high school, I had no intention of going to college, which broke my parents’ heart. But, I just wanted to dance. Specifically, I wanted to be in ballet. During my high school years, I was really pursuing that. Now, I graduated in ’73, so Greg, you know as a historian, what that time period was.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

My junior high and high school years, we’d sit in front of the TV as the draft numbers came up for Vietnam. I remember the Lieutenant Kelly Trials and the My Lai massacre coming to light. I remember the invasion of Cambodia. I remember all this, and I was like the poster child of liberal arts even then, and I just taking it all in. I remember going to my ballet class, and I went into the dressing room and I started talking. This was around when everything going on in Cambodia came to light. I was telling the other people that were changing clothes, getting ready for class, “Have you been listening to the radio today?” And they were not particularly interested.

I went into the studio, and I remember just taking that whole ballet bar and thinking, as trite as it sounds, “I can’t be the sugar plum fairy the rest of my life. I’m not ready to be done learning. I’m not ready to be done with school.” This was getting into spring of my senior year in high school. So, truth be told, I applied to the two schools I was familiar with. I applied to Carleton and I applied to St. Olaf.

Greg Kaster:

St. Olaf, yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

My mother had gone to St. Olaf for one year and decided it wasn’t a good fit for her and went into nurse’s training elsewhere. I had gone to a gymnastics camp once at Carleton, and I applied to those two schools. I was accepted at those two schools. I went and visited, Carleton completely intimidated me, St. Olaf felt comfortable, and I decided to go there. So, it wasn’t a well-researched decision, but it’s how I landed there. I majored in biology education and minored in chemistry.

Greg Kaster:

I love it. Oh my gosh, I was hoping you wouldn’t say dance, because I didn’t know what you majored in. That is awesome.

Michele Rusinko:

No, they didn’t have a dance major there. They didn’t.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I wondered about that too, yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

They had a little bit of a dance program, and there was a wonderful dance teacher over at Carleton, two of them in fact, and I used to take the little shuttle over and take class over there. But then, I’d come back and I was a science major, danced on the side. I graduated from St. Olaf, and I applied for just a handful of high school science jobs. I was again, offered pretty much what I applied for. In most cases, I would have been the first female science teacher at that school.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Michele Rusinko:

I took the job at Apple Valley High School where there was a female chemistry teacher already, so I had a colleague, and I taught high school science for four years before I went back to dance.

Greg Kaster:

I don’t think I knew that. That’s amazing. I don’t think I knew that. Then, did you go from there to Arizona State?

Michele Rusinko:

Yes. I discovered a number of things teaching at Apple Valley High School. I discovered I really loved teaching, there was no question. I started thinking I would rather teach at the college level, and I noticed, while I had a world of appreciation for science, if I was doing let’s say reading for pleasure, I was reading about dance. I knew that my heart was still there. Actually, my third year teaching, I made the decision to go back to graduate school, but it took another year to line those ducks up and put everything in place. Then, I packed my life into my little Honda Accord, and drove from Minnesota to Arizona, and did my MFA in dance.

Greg Kaster:

What was it… Was Arizona State known for a particularly fine dance program? What drew you there?

Michele Rusinko:

Yes, they had a very good dance program, and a couple of parts to that. Again, I narrowed down my choices. I know some people apply places widely, I did my research, I narrowed it down to Arizona State or Ohio State. Of course, this was when people didn’t easily use the internet, so you had to fly out and audition and interview. That was what about my budget held, two schools. Ohio State had a great program, but they were absolutely adamant that there was no financial aid for first-year graduate students. Then, I went to Arizona, and they had a wonderful program. I remember just because I was swept away of the desert in the winter thinking, “Wow, all things being equal, Columbus, Ohio, Tempe, Arizona.” Then, I got a region’s fellowship, which paid my tuition all three years.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, that helps.

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly why I went to Boston University. I got a fellowship, I was like, “Okay, done. I’m in.”

Michele Rusinko:

Done. So, I was happy it worked out in terms of the weather, and it was a wonderful fit for me. It was an absolutely wonderful fit. I thrived at Arizona.

Greg Kaster:

One of the things I love about speaking with my colleagues and alums too, I love these origins, these career academic, career, whatever you want to call it, origin stories, because so often, there are these twists and turns. There isn’t a straight line. For example, when I was interviewing our Chaplain Siri for this podcast, she was a chemistry major.

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Which I didn’t know. I may have known you were a bachelor of science background, but I don’t think I knew about it, and your teaching. So, that’s just awesome. Also, I saw by the way, you call yourself a first-generation college student. Is that true? There’s somewhere I saw that.

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah. I own that from the standpoint, my mother did go to St. Olaf for a year. I remember her saying, “All the girls there had beautiful clothes and played musical instruments. What did I have in common with them?” She grew up on a farm and was clearly, clearly first-generation, tried, but she only went a year. My father tried, went to school a little bit as he could afford, but finances and World War II and other things stepped in. So, neither of them finished college. They both went to a year, maybe my dad went a year and a half.

So, I remember at St. Olaf my first year, and it’s very similar, we see this at Gustavus all the time, people would start talking and you would start to hear the lineage conversations, the ones of, “My parents went to St. Olaf, my grandparents, my great-grandparents.”

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Michele Rusinko:

Or the conversations were like, “Well, my grandfather was a judge, or my grandfather was provost at this school,” and I’m thinking, “Oh my goodness.” One grandfather was a dairy farmer, bless him, the other was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who worked in the coal mines. I just remember I was feeling like I have landed on Mars. I don’t-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. There are lessons about class. I have a similar backgrounds. As you know, my dad grew up, and his parents came from Greece, grew up in Chicago, became a hairdresser, his dad had been in barber, didn’t go to college. My mother went to a two year… She grew up in a farm, and then went to a two year teacher college, tried teaching for a time, I think even in a one room school house and hated it, and that was it. So, I think in my immediate family at least, I was the first one to go as far as four years, and certainly to go for the advanced degrees, your case too. So yeah, I can relate to what you’re saying.

I remember feeling, I didn’t feel that so much at Northern Illinois University, because there were so many people like me at that public institution outside of Chicago, but I definitely felt it when I got to Boston and Boston University. Wow. I also find it interesting, I just love these stories. I love how movement in your case, as a little kid, it’s a problem until you find the right context, and then it’s highly functional, it satisfies, it’s great. I love that story.

So, you come out with the MFA, and at that point, is there a particular dancing you are doing and you really enjoy? It sounds like it’s not ballet, is it modern dance?

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah. My senior year at St. Olaf, I took a master class from a visiting artist at Carleton. His name was Bill Evans. It was a modern technique class, and I fell in love with it. I wasn’t good at it, but I fell in love with it. The summer after I graduated from college, before I was going to start teaching high school in the fall, I went up to Seattle and I studied with him and his company. That was the beginning of a real turning point. I realized I loved the ritual of ballet, I loved the strength of it. It was never my expressive vocabulary. There were different vocabulary, a different way of moving that felt like my honest movement voice, and that was modern.

So, I crossed over into modern. At the time, I got out of graduate school ’84, the market was still difficult for MFAs, but there were jobs if you were willing to go where they were. You often were, as I was when I came to Gustavus four years later, I was first at a school in Utah called Weber State, you were often the only dance faculty, and you taught everything. You taught ballet, you taught modern, you taught history, choreography, you might teach… I taught a class called rhythmic movement for the elementary school or something, for teachers. You were a one person department often. But, there were jobs out there. I first went to Weber for four years, and the program grew during my time there. We were-

Greg Kaster:

You basically ran the program, I think, right?

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You created it, yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

It was a two person department when I left. As things circle around, you mentioned you know my husband Bob, I met him in Utah, and we got married out there. Had a relatively small wedding, but came back to Minnesota to have a reception with my big extended family. At that reception was Anne Wagner, who was my dance prof at St. Olaf, who I’d stayed in touch with. As she went through the receiving line, she said to me, “There’s a dance job at Gustavus. Do you have any interest?” I thought, “I don’t know, send me a job description.”

I remember we were flying back to Salt Lake City and my mountain loving husband said to me, “I think Minnesota is really interesting. I think I could live there,” and I’m like, “Seriously? There’s a job at Gustavus.” So then he said, “Oh, apply. See what happens.” So, I applied and I got the job here, and we moved from Salt Lake City to St. Peter.

Greg Kaster:

That is so… Again, that’s what in history we call contingency. There are so many contingencies in one’s life and path, whether we know it or not. So, what if she hadn’t been there, your former teacher? You might not have known about the job.

Michele Rusinko:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

The other thing is, were you aware… Maybe I should back up. Were the twin cities as much of a dance Mecca then as they are now, and if so, were you aware of that?

Michele Rusinko:

Probably even more so, I think what sustained me during my four years as a high school teacher, I was very involved with the Minneapolis dance community. It was heady times. There was an organization called MICA, the Minnesota Independent Choreographer Alliance, and the funding was great, from Dayton Hudson and the McKnight early days, funding individual artists, individual choreographers. So, I was very involved and nourished by that. As I said, I discovered modern as I was graduating from college, but I really had the opportunity to grow as an artist during those four years I was teaching high school.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I can see why that would have been important and sustaining. I’ve just grown since, well partly through you partly through another friend who was a dancer, and works with a dance company up here, I guess she teaches gyro tonics, but in any case, I’ve just become more aware in the last, maybe the last 10 years or so, about the incredible talent, including some Gustavus students alums who are in these dance companies in the twin cities, it’s just fabulous. So modern dance, is it possible to define it? You mentioned that it has its own vocabulary different from ballet, its own movements. What is modern dance?

Michele Rusinko:

That could be about a three hour podcast in and of itself, but we’ll take the shorter version. As much as a lot of people look at the emergence of modern dance at the turn of the 20th century and 1900s, as if it was all reactionary against ballet, there was a little piece there, but it was more dancers who felt they wanted dance to be taken seriously as an art form, the way other forms like visual art and music, how music or visual art could really dive into subject matters of substance, and have something to say about those. Ballet has gone through its ups and downs. I actually love teaching ballet history. It went through times when it was political propaganda, it went through times when it was just about romantic storytelling. It had a consistency, it had a set vocabulary that gave it a global convenience, I’ll say. You could have a dancer from Italy go to England, and even if their English wasn’t great, they knew the vocabulary of dance. It was always-

Greg Kaster:

Interesting.

Michele Rusinko:

… Taught in French. So, there was a global nature to it, but it had highs and lows, and it got to be a museum piece. For a long time, it didn’t seem to speak towards current events or what was alive in other artistic communities, be it visual arts or music.

Greg Kaster:

That is all extremely interesting to me, new to me, and also it relates to the quote I started with, which we can come back to about… Because, what you’re talking about is how dance can… Dance does not have to be divorced from what’s happening in the world, whether it’s around… I’ve seen dances related to issues of race for example, for sure, gender. I think when I first was… Well, I actually through a dear friend of Kate’s, my wife Kate, who was a dancer in New York City for time, did you ever meet Betsy? I don’t know if you met our friend Betsy ever, but anyway, Betsy, modern dance to me before I started seeing her do it, and listening to her talk about it.

It was just people making random movements, which of course is not the case. It was a very naive understanding of it. Whereas ballet to me, was something very formal and studied in all senses of that word. But, you also danced modern… Go ahead. No, go ahead.

Michele Rusinko:

Can I interrupt or do a segue in there?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

When I teach dance history, and I teach, the class is called studies in dance history, because it’s such a huge field that I just try to give a little slice of it, one of the first things I really work on is dispelling the myth that dance is a universal art. Yeah, there’s a shared vocabulary in ballet, but as I say to the students, dances are created in a specific time and a specific culture, and they are always reflective of that. Something, we might look at the [foreign language 00:27:55] from Swan Lake and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” Whereas, somebody who had been raised in the Taliban would look at it and say, “Isn’t that pornographic?” It’s not a universal, everybody sees it the same way. Dance really grows out of the time and the culture it exists in. So, it’s very interesting and hard to see when you’re in the middle of it, if you’re to look back and see, “What was going on there?” But, when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s a little hard to see.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, you just made my day because, what you’re talking about is dear to any historian’s heart, and that’s historical context.

Michele Rusinko:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

It’s the same. If you think of dance as a text, it’s like any text. We have to understand it in its historical context, even if it seems to speak to timeless what… No, it’s grounded in a particular moment in time, a particular culture, place, et cetera. Yeah, that makes a great deal of sense to me. So, were you choreographing… You were already choreographing at Weber State, right? I assume?

Michele Rusinko:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I was choreographing at St. Olaf as an undergrad. I would get an idea, this is still true today, it’s like I get something stuck in my craw, and to understand it, I need to make a dance about it. I started that as an undergraduate with very little training, and then in graduate school, I really dug down deep there. I don’t even know. I can’t have words for it. I discovered more about who I am and what is satisfying as work during those years. There is something absolutely lovely about performing and getting that immediate feedback, but birthing a dance is like writing a book or an article.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

It’s a deep dive into something, investigating it, lots of trial and error, lots of craft and putting it together, and then putting it out there for other people to interact with.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I have in my list of questions for you, akin to writing question mark, choreographing, and you just answered that, yeah. I thought so. Actually, I wanted to talk to you a little more about that or hear more about it. First of all, I just find it so interesting, the work people do and what’s involved. So gosh, I wish you could dance for us right now, or we could see a video, but we’re on radio here, audio only. But, I wonder if you could just say more about the process you go through. So, you start with an idea, and then you need to turn it into a dance. Maybe even if you could, speak about a particular dance you’ve choreographed. What kind of idea, what’s the process?

Michele Rusinko:

Well, people approach dance in different ways. There are choreographers who start just with their bodies doodling in the studio, and as shapes and phrases occur, it starts to make sense where they’re going. I am really a conceptual choreographer. I’ll give just two examples. One that maybe a number of people have seen, who are familiar with Gustavus’ tradition of Christmas and Christ Chapel. A year ago, as we were working on Christmas in Christ Chapel, one of the things that makes Christmas in Christ Chapel so unique is that, it’s not just a music program. It again starts with a concept, and it tries to look at the nativity story through that lens, through what’s going on there.

Well, a year ago in the fall, we were in the throes of the immigration crisis. We were in the throes of kids being separated from their families. So, we started wrestling around with that, and I started thinking about that, being aware that, when people come to see Christmas in Christ Chapel, they want to be uplifted, they want to think about the Christmas story. But, we can’t divorce ourselves from what’s going on.

I remember, and it’s so fun to be part of that production team, because we all just bat ideas around, and I said as I often do, I get an image that starts percolating in my mind, and I said, “Wow, we have just… Immigration is just part of history. If we want to look back at the time of Mary and Joseph going to register, and people of that time traveling from one place to another, being displaced,” and I said, “As I’m thinking, I think about the displaced people, World War II. I just get this image of the Jewish refugees who got out just in time, and were not exactly welcomed with open arms in the new world.”

Then I said, “In my lifetime, I’m so aware of the impact of the Vietnam War, and the influx of Hmong refugees. Then the last years when we saw the war in Somalia, and then now what we’re dealing with Central America,” I said, “These images are so strong. What if at the beginning we just saw small groups of people traverse from one side of the chancel to the other side, and it just kept going, little groupings of people crossing the front of the chancel? But, you saw by how they dressed and how they looked, that they represented different times, different-

Greg Kaster:

That great. I love that.

Michele Rusinko:

So, I just had this idea. Then probably three days later, Professor Ruth Lin sent me a file, and she said, “I’ve been thinking about your idea. How would this music work?” I listened to it and I’m like, “Yes, that’s it.” Then, I have to tell one more story about that, because it was so amazing. So, I always recruit student collaborators, and two of the students I recruited, one was a young man who was Hmong, and one was a young woman who was an immigrant from Africa. So I said, “I need you to be my truth tellers. Here’s what I want to explore, but I don’t want to, I don’t know, I don’t want to make it showy or cheap. I don’t want to appropriate cultures. I just don’t know how to go forward on this idea without your help.”

We recruited the other dancers, and Nathan, the young man, one day we were in the studio working, and he grabbed all these yoga belts and he tied them into knots. Then, he tied the five dancers together and they started moving, and I’m like, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well, this is the story my grandparents told me. That when they left Vietnam, they tied the kids to them, because they had to quietly go through the jungle, and they didn’t want to lose someone, but they didn’t want to be found.”

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Michele Rusinko:

I just got shivers. That became part, one of the most amazing little moments, that that piece of his history, his story ended up in just that crossing, five people lashed together, moving from one side of the chancel to the other side. So, it starts with an idea. Then, sometimes I get a little, some visual image to hold up-

Greg Kaster:

Right. I was just going to say, [crosstalk 00:36:52]. Yeah. I don’t know how you work as a choreographer in this regard or any, but do choreographers write this down? I’ve always wondered when I’m watching a dance, how in the hell do the dancers remember all of these moves? Is it like a script that’s memorized or?

Michele Rusinko:

Well, two parts to that. It is body to body motor memory. There are people who are magnificent at remembering movement sequences. I was when I was younger, now I am 100% dependent on videotape. So, when I’m working on something, when we get something I like, at this point, I literally just whip out my cell phone and record it, so that I can look at it and make sure we don’t lose it. Now, it’s a practice. I think about how my rehearsal practice has changed. Now, when I’m working on a dance, one of the first things I do is I set up a Google drive, and then ideas, images, pictures, lists of words, and then eventually little clips of tapes, all get stored in that file for memory and for refinement.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s cool too. I hadn’t thought about the impact of, let’s say the impact of the iPhone. No. That makes sense to me, thank you. I’ve always wondered, because it’s amazing to watch. It’s so complicated and yet it’s not just a stream of consciousness dancing, right? It doesn’t seem to be, at least when I… Choreography is, there are certain things you have to do, you follow, I guess. Is that right?

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Was there a lot of improv?

Michele Rusinko:

Well, it depends on the choreographer. There’s choreographers who have a lot of improv moments within performances. I use a lot of improvisation to generate movement, but my final product is set. So, to wind it back, sometimes there’s a bypass of the verbal. You’re playing with some movement, and whether it’s me and I might say something like, “I feel like you have to burst out and run right there, or where does it feel like it needs to go? Does it need to go down to the ground? Do you need to come together? Where do you feel like… Intuitively, where does it feel like it needs to go?” Sometimes things will literally feel right or feel wrong, and in the moment, I can’t tell you why that is, but it’s like going back and doing revisions on a paper or something. Sometimes the logic of it, sometimes something is so obvious down the road, but in the moment, I have learned to trust when something feels right and analyze later if it’s a good choice.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You’re literally anticipating what was going to be my next question, which is, and maybe this is also a three-hour podcast, but there are dance critics, and you’ve written commentary, I don’t know if it’s dance criticism, but what makes for a successful dance, in your mind? Stipulating, there probably isn’t one kind of successful dance, but what are the ingredients of a dance that is successful? Is it that it’s moved the audience to think, or moved the audience… Go ahead.

Michele Rusinko:

Well I would say, there’s a lot of things that can be. Sometimes, that sheer, quirky joy of creativity, like when you see something and you go, “I wish I would have thought of that.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

Sometimes it’s just somebody thought of something, and it’s just wonderful, spark, and creative, and new. Sometimes it is intellectually puzzling, and it can be just satisfying on an intellectual level. Other times, and this is where my old biology teacher comes back into the play, I love the understanding of mirror neurons. For example, this is a violent example, but if somebody was to punch you in the stomach and you feel the pain, certain parts of your brain would light up. If you’re watching a movie and you see somebody get punched in the stomach, you probably even contract in your stomach, and those parts of your brain light up just as if you had gotten punched. That’s how mirror neurons work.

Sometimes when you’re watching a dance, and like a dancer can go flying in a leap, those mirror neurons in the audience, they light up and they go flying in that leap too. There can be something just kinesthetically like, you’re just watching and you think, “Oh my gosh, that just would feel good to do.” Then the fourth place, I’ll relate it right back to story. You know how somebody can tell a very, very specific story?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Michele Rusinko:

That it ends up having a much more universal impact. Somebody can tell the story of losing a beloved friend and you might think, “Oh, I’ve never lost a friend in that way, but I have felt loss, and that story captured loss, and it made me feel it.” I think dances can be like that too. There can be something really specific in it, but somehow it communicates something more universal.

Greg Kaster:

No, go ahead.

Michele Rusinko:

I was just going to tell you a quick story if I could, of a dance I created years ago. I’ve told this story before. We’re an educational institution. We like to give everybody opportunities, who’s in the dance company. We were figuring out casting, and there were four really lovely dancers, very different from each other, who weren’t used. I thought, “No, they have to be on something. I’ll make a dance for them.” So, this was 9/11, and I was going to a conference. My parents still lived in South Minneapolis, and sometimes I’d leave my car there, and my dad would drive me to the airport. Back in that day, they could come all the way to the gate with you. My dad, who was an old air force pilot said, “Wow, that plane’s taking off like a homesick angel.” And I thought, “That is the most interesting phrase. Where does that come from?”

He said, back when he was in the army air force, sometimes they needed to like make a really steep ascent, and they just had to… That was the expression they’d use, “To get off that runway, you’ve got take off like a homesick angel.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Michele Rusinko:

I just loved that phrase, and I said to the dancers, “I have no idea what we’re doing, but I have this idea about homesick angels. The first section is going to be low to the ground, the next section is going to be mid-level, and the third section, we’re going to be flying.” So, we started working. The first section started to become something nice, the second section was going well, the third section was garbage. No matter what I tried, it was terrible.

One day, before I went into rehearsal, I had this thought and I said, “There’s a fourth section to this dance, and it’s called grace. I don’t really understand it, but there’s a fourth section.” So, we started working on it. It started turning into something really beautiful. Then, it was like a light switch went off, and I said to the dancers, “I just figured out this dance. Sometimes you really, really want something, and you don’t get it. These angels didn’t get to go home. Sometimes grace is discovering it all worked out for the best.” They all started talking about when that had happened in their lives.

We performed this piece, it was very beautiful. After the performance, people would come up on me and they would get really teary, and they’d say, “I really liked your dance, but there was something really sad about it, but it was beautiful.” They couldn’t find the words, and it was very abstract. But, there was something there that people understood about that idea. I don’t know how it all got captured, but it did.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The work of creating that, as you just told us about it, is an example of grace, right?

Michele Rusinko:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

You didn’t know where it was going to go, it was a disaster and then boom. That is so much about learning. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m going to map this all out and we’ve got it all.” No. It’s like writing. Again, you’re revising, you’re thinking, you’re changing, new ideas come up. Same when you’re researching history. So often, what you start out to research isn’t what you wind up writing about, because you’ve come across newer thoughts, new ideas, you come across new evidence, I love that stuff. That’s creativity.

The other thing I want to talk about, which I know relates to dance, at least I think it relates to dance, is the whole business of your work on positive psychology and resilience, which I think that’s more recent. Is that accurate, like the last five years or so?

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah. It’s coming to last six, going on now. Again, I’ll give you a little short overview of this. As you know, in 2013, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer. I will attribute in part discovering that very early, because I listen to my body. Being, a dancer I noticed. I couldn’t with my fingers feel anything, but I noticed something was off. That’s a longer story. But, a friend of mine had suggested, she said, if you get the chance, go out to Kripalu Yoga and Wellness Center in the Berkshire Mountains, and take this class called radiance, building an amazing life after cancer. I was like, “Okay, I can do that.” And I did.

Greg Kaster:

Berkshire is beautiful. Why not?

Michele Rusinko:

As I’ve said on more than one occasion, it totally rocked my world. It gave me a framework to be thinking about things. One thing was, where the positive and positive psychology is, is the science of what works, the science of what enables us to thrive. There’s a huge amount of research there. People will often say, “Oh, isn’t it just thinking happy thoughts?” I’m like, “Well no, not so much.” You take something like again, we’re living in this pandemic, we’re living in this age of Coronavirus, and there are horrible things going on. The suffering is real. The people who are dying is real, but it is not 100% of the whole picture. In that whole picture, there are also those amazingly creative students who are figuring out how to do it, the amazing people who are dropping off the meals on their neighbor’s front porch, because their elderly neighbor can’t get out to grocery shop as regularly. There are these beautiful little moments.

Positive psychology doesn’t say, “Ignore the bad, put your blinders on.” It says, “Yeah, see the bad, but also see the good. Savor those good pieces.” What’s the research around savoring the good? This is such an interesting rap because, Barbara Fredrickson is the primary researcher on positive emotions. I think she’s at Greensboro, she’s in North Carolina. When she first started wanting to research positive emotions, people said, “You will never be taken seriously as an academic. Don’t go there.” But, she was fascinated. What she discovered, and what she is known for is what’s called the Broaden and Build Theory. When you are experiencing a positive emotion, when you’re feeling grateful, when you’re feeling joyful, when you’re feeling satisfied after a good meal, when you experience a positive emotion, you actually visually have a bigger field of vision. You see more around the edges. In your mind, you have more problem solving capability, you have more creativity, because you see more options. It’s this broaden and build.

Greg Kaster:

That is fascinating.

Michele Rusinko:

It is. When you are in the throes and you know this, like when you’re in the peak of frustration, when you’re really angry, literally, the field in front of you narrows and your creativity and your problem solving just narrows. So to bring it back, I think I am somebody who always savored the good. I think it’s a piece of my creativity from the start. It’s been so interesting to have the scientists, the biology, chemistry major, the school teacher come back and look at what’s the research about this, and how does this all play into who I am in the face of all this?

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I’ve been thinking, even earlier in our conversation, I love the way… When you were talking about the mirror neurons, the way science still is there for you in all kinds of useful ways. I think I may have heard her, the woman, the researcher, I may have helped her on public radio, because this is all ringing a bell. The other thing that I’m thinking listening to you talk about that is, as I’ve said about the study of history, you can study history and become very disillusioned and depressed, or you can study it and be pollyannaish. For me, it’s both. It’s a source of realism, and I wouldn’t say pessimism, but let’s say realism, but also hope, a source of hope at the same time. It’s not an either or.

I don’t know why, over the… I don’t know what it is, but I think actually it’s the influence of, some of it is definitely the influence of this dancer friend of ours here in the twin cities, Wendy Anderson, and also knowing your own work too, just the ways in which the mind, body are so intertwined in ways I never really appreciated before. I’m assuming that, the wider your field of vision, the more resilient, or is that-

Michele Rusinko:

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Because, I’m also quite interested in resilience. What is it that makes some people more resilient, others less resilient? We’re reading a lot and hearing about resilience right now, amid the pandemic, and even how resilient is the republic, how resilient are institutions as we have one president refusing to concede to president elect, for example.

The other thing I wanted to touch on is just your sense of where we’re at in the arts generally. This is when I maybe need to practice more positive psychology. I think we need the arts more than ever, at this time. Yet, I fear for the arts, the budget cuts, et cetera, et cetera. Are you optimistic about the future of the arts?

Michele Rusinko:

Yes, I am. I am not unrealistic. I know we’ve got a long, hard patch ahead. The recovery here is going to take some real time. Some organizations, theatres, companies will not survive, new ones will emerge. So, if I take the long view, I completely trust that the arts will thrive again. But, I also know it’s going to be a long haul. There’s going to be some time here.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Michele Rusinko:

Sometimes I can just get metaphorical. I think right now, there’s this one poem that talks about what to do in darkness. One of the lines is to see it as a time of germination. I think we’re at a time where all we can do is grow roots, and grow those little runners that come out from the roots, and connect to another root system, so we just get this really strong root system. Then, when the time is right, things will flourish, things will bloom again.

Greg Kaster:

That appeals to the gardener in me. I like that. I just think one thing that gives me hope, this isn’t the same as having the resources, of course, but just the creativity, no surprise, of the artistic community, whether it’s museums, small, large orchestras, how they’re still trying to do their art amid all of the challenges associated with the pandemic. But without art, good Lord, how are we a democracy? How are we human? I just can’t… This is when I wish I had the authority to say, “Here museums and restaurants, here. Here’s a lot of money to help you through this.” We do need money, we need people to step up. We’re lucky to be, I think we’re lucky, I feel lucky to be in Minnesota where the arts are so, so strongly valued.

But you’re right, it’s the long perspective that we need to have. What about teaching? What is it about teaching dance that you really, really love? Because, you are a phenomenal teacher, and you said yourself earlier how much you realized, I think it was when you were starting, you really want to teach. You’d already done the high school teaching. What is it about teaching dance that you enjoy so much?

Michele Rusinko:

Well, I think I always talk in stories, but I think what I love is sharing the exploration of an idea, and letting it take hold in students, and seeing where they go with it. Again, I go back to Margaret H’Doubler, who started the dance program at University of Wisconsin, it was the first dance major in the country, and she said, “I don’t teach dance, I teach students.” I always think about that, whether I’m teaching dance or story in my FTS or the resilience work, I’m exploring an idea. When I think about it with dance, one of the things I often will say to students is to have mobility. You have to know where your stability is. So, to have a flag that just whips wildly in the breeze, you have to have a strong flag pole. If the flag pole was a noodle, the flag couldn’t whip around.

So, when I’m teaching things in movement class, I’m like, “Where’s your stability? Find your leg, find the ground there, drop down in. You’ve got to know where your stability is to free up the part that’s moving or to move through space.” I remember, almost in the earlier days of email, and I got an email from a student one time who had graduated like five or six years ago, and she said to me, she said, “I’ve really been floundering for a bit. I’ve been having trouble moving forward.” She said, “I started thinking and hearing your voice saying, “You have to know where your stability is to know where your mobility is.” That’s it. I had to find my stability. What was stable in my life? Who were the people who supported me? How did I have an income?” She said, “I had to find my stability to be able to move forward.” And I’m like, “Yeah, she got it.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s good advice for the nation. That’s good advice for the United States right now. Let’s find our stability and then move forward. Seriously, there’s a lot to be said for that, even as applied to a country, to a nation. You mentioned the alum, and that’s actually where I wanted to end, to talk a little bit about the dance major. What’s your elevator pitch for the dance program, the dance major, and your response to people who say, I’m sure you must hear this, we hear it all the time in history, “What can you do with,” fill in the blank, dance or history.

Michele Rusinko:

Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons to dance. Here’s an interesting little tidbit. When I look back on the Gustavus Dance Company, and I look at the most common career of former dance company members, the most common career is attorney.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Michele Rusinko:

I think about that, I think about what it takes to stand your ground, what it takes to listen deeply, and what it takes to improvise when you need to. There’s all these transferable skills. Dancers make wonderful healthcare workers and they make wonderful lawyers. There are those people who that’s… I often will say to a dancer, somebody who wants to go into dance as a career, I’m like, “Is there anything else you could do and be happy?” And they go, “No.” I’m like, “Okay, because it’s a hard road, but it’s a rich…” I am so grateful that when I was five, my parents said yes when I wanted to take tap ballet and acrobats. I am so grateful I stepped in the door way back then.

When I look back, dance has been a rich, and wonderful life for me. I’m a liberal arts girl, Gustavus was a good land for me. I remember when I went to graduate school, and most of the people there had BFAs, some had come from places like Julliard. They were incredible dancers. But, I remember thinking, “But they don’t know who Kierkegaard is. How do they think?” So, I’m such a liberal arts girl, and that has been the richest source of my artistry.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you are. I strongly agree, and that’s what I meant earlier when I said you just exude learning for life. I love talking to you. Your interests are so varied, and you think deeply about issues. You’re curious. It’s all good. That’s what the liberal arts are all about. So listeners, especially prospective students, come to Gustavus, where you can dance your heart out and learn a great deal at the same time.

Michele, been great. Stay well, keep moving, I guess we could say. I wish I could find a video of me, and I don’t know if there’s one, I was about to say when I was tap dancing as a little kid in some big something high school auditorium. I took tap dance, and I remember having to do the “Mexican hat”. Is there such a thing as the Mexican hat?

Michele Rusinko:

Oh yeah.

Greg Kaster:

We were in sombreros, and my good Lord, which I hope there isn’t a video. Anyway, this has been so much fun and so interesting. Thank you. Take good care.

Michele Rusinko:

Thank you. Good to talk to you.

Greg Kaster:

See you back in campus. Likewise. Bye-bye.

Michele Rusinko:

Bye-bye.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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