Michele Rusinko has lived in St. Peter, Minnesota for the past 30 years with husband Robert Weisenfeld and son Josh. Michele and Bob are career Gusties at Gustavus College, where she is a Professor in Theatre and Dance, and Bob has retired as Director of their Government Grants and Sponsored Programs. She is shown here doing her “happy arabesque.” Probably the first happy arabesque they’ve seen outside at a Starbucks in sometime.
Tell me about your growing up.
I was born and raised on Morgan Avenue in South Minneapolis and went to Southwest high school. My mother was an emergency room nurse, and my father was a policeman, and I have an older sister and a younger brother, both of whom are now retired.
Were either of your parents from Minneapolis? Let’s start with your mother.
My mother was from Lakeville, the Farmington area, and she was raised on a farm that has been in the family for probably four generations now. My uncle still lives there at the age of 93, but they rent out the land. The farm was homesteaded to my family in exchange for service in the Civil War, and the homestead papers were actually signed by Abraham Lincoln.
My mother’s maiden name was Ruh, and they were 100% Norwegian. Interestingly, something that affected her life, was that my grandmother died when my mother was 12, from breast-cancer. Which made my journey a little more poignant.
My mother went to St. Olaf for one year but then left that and went to the nursing program at the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis. She entered the Army during the war and was a nurse in the Philippines. And eventually she came back here and spent most of her career in the emergency room at General Hospital, and she stayed there through its transition to become Hennepin County Medical Center.
How about your father’s family?
My father had a very different path. He was born here, child ten of twelve, but his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They came from villages in the Carpathian Mountains, and ethnically are from a group called Rusyns. The only famous Rusyn that I know is Andy Warhol. And we realized that the area that my family came from in Europe is actually very close to the area that Bob’s ancestors came from – where Czech and Slovakia and Hungary come together
Editor’s note: Rusyn is pronounced like Russian, but with an ‘s’ instead of ‘sh’. Closest I could come.
There was an interesting mix in many of those villages, including both the Russian Orthodox and Jews. In fact, they say that the Rusyns would often help the Jewish families out on Shabbat. What do they call that?
Oh, as the Shabbos Goy?
So my father’s family lived in Nordeast Minneapolis, where his father was a day laborer, shoveled coal, and my grandmother worked many jobs, including for a while in the kitchen of the original Dayton’s Tea Room. One of my favorite stories, my Aunt Ollie – it was actually Olga – ran away when she was 14 and ended up in vaudeville as the assistant to a magician. She was the one that was sawed in half every night.
So, a wonderful thing about my childhood is that we could drive 30 minutes from my father’s family, with all the European languages and foods of Nordeast Minneapolis, and go to the farm in Lakeville, grandpa’s farm, and all the Scandinavians. And I come from storytellers on both sides, from the very emotional to the very reserved.
And my father was in the Army Air Corps during the war, and had a life-saving event while training, just before going overseas. The plane he was on lost an engine with a dozen airmen on board. Only four of them made it out and survived, and my dad was number three. He hesitated at the door, but the guy behind him pushed him out, and later told my dad “Sarge, I shoved you, and followed your bald head out the door.” My dad often said that saved his life. But he broke his leg when he landed, so he didn’t end up going overseas.
When he came back he had a number of jobs and eventually took a civil service exam. And they tell the story that his family didn’t have a telephone, but he came home from work one day and his mother said “Joey, the police were here looking for you today.” It turns out that he had one of the top scores on the exam, and they wanted him to attend the Police Academy. He served in a number of different roles for 32 years and ended up in the ‘70s as Deputy Chief of Police in Minneapolis.
What religion were you raised as growing up?
I was raised Lutheran, with my mother, but my father maintained his Russian Orthodox faith, at St. Mary’s church in Minneapolis. Looking back, I can see why I am comfortable in Judaism. I remember during my confirmation, I was expected to memorize and mimic interpretations that I didn’t agree with. The confirmation teacher once told me that if I kept up that attitude I would not be confirmed. And I said that doesn’t make sense to me – I should be the one confirming something, not them confirming me. So, I was sent to the pastor. And the interesting thing there, was that the pastor basically agreed with me. And when I eventually learned about Judaism, I realized that there were all these people that question things and read things like I do!
How are you most like your parents?
Well my mother was not just a nurse, but she was a caregiver her whole life. And I am known for mothering my students. It always seemed like our home was crisis central, because if anybody had a problem they ended up at our house – because my mom was the nurse, and my dad was the police, so they could handle whatever it might be.
But I think I am louder and bossier than my mother, so I get that from my father. And I probably look more like my dad. When he was in his 80s I would drive up to take him to the doctor, and he would always hand me his Mobil gas card and say, “fill up your car before you go.” And one day, I went to the Mobil station five blocks from his house and I gave them the card and the guy inside looked up and said, “You don’t look like Joseph Rusinko,” and I pulled off my hat and said, “Look again!” and he “Jeez, you do look like Joe Rusinko!”
What was most notable about your school years, were you homecoming queen?
Heavens no! I barely was there. I started taking tap and acrobatics when I was about four and a half years old, and it was right then and there that I knew I had found my calling. I was a good student, but all I could think of was being a ballerina. So, by high school I was going to school each morning, and then every afternoon I went to the Minneapolis ballet center on Lake and Hennepin. I just wanted to finish high school and move to New York. My family tolerated it but my father really wanted me to go to college and have a secure job. I think my mother was OK with me following my heart.
So, did you become a ballerina?
No, I remember I was listening to the radio one afternoon on my way to dance class, and there was news that the US military had just invaded Cambodia, and it seemed to me that the war was escalating and going to be never-ending. And when I went up to the dressing room I told the other dancers what I had just heard, but all I got was blank stares. There was just no interest. I remember during class that day thinking, I can’t be the sugarplum fairy the rest of my life.
After class my dad would often pick me up on his way home – in his unmarked squad car. So, I got into the car that day and told him that I was going to go to college, and I thought he was going to burst into tears he was so happy. So, I ended up going to St. Olaf and majored in biology and education, with a chemistry minor. And after college I taught high school biology and chemistry for four years at Apple Valley high school. The school was one year old at the time, and I was the second woman on the science faculty.
Where you involved in dance at Apple Valley?
I would dance on the side, and in the summers. There was a group in Minneapolis called the Minnesota Independent Choreographer Alliance, for dancers that were not affiliated with dance companies, and we would create and perform works around town. And I also developed the curriculum for the original dance program at Apple Valley, but I wasn’t licensed to teach dance. Though while I was there I decided I’d rather be teaching dance, so I went back and got my Master of Fine Arts in dance and choreography at Arizona State University.
Was that still in ballet?
This is about the time I crossed from ballet into modern dance. And I think that came from trying to figure out how my artistic self-reconciled with my political self. My whole world in ballet had been princesses and princes. Those narratives didn’t mean much to me anymore, and so I started to discover modern dance, and working with choreographers that took on difficult things to explore through movement.
So, you could explore something like Cambodia through modern?
Absolutely! And much more so than ballet, though that has changed a bit. I think you maybe could have used ballet vocabulary, but that wasn’t my understanding of it.
What do you mean by vocabulary?
I mean the moves. In ballet the moves have specific names. When you step on one leg with the other leg behind you in a certain way, it’s an arabesque. And you can do a happy arabesque, or you can do an angry arabesque. But in modern dance you can invent moves to express happiness or anger. It seems that there is a lot more freedom, and a richer vocabulary.
Where did you go from Arizona State?
From there I got my first full-time job at Weber (rhymes with Bieber) State College, now University, in Utah. And that is about the time I met Bob. I was talking to another dancer one day about a piece I was working on and looking for music. And she said there was a guy working at the art gallery that played classical guitar, and he might have some ideas. He wasn’t able to talk by phone that day, but eventually he called me back and invited me to visit him in Park City. And that was it, it was one of those love at first sight things. But looking back, I think it was all a set up.
Could you give me a quick tour of Bob’s story?
He was born and raised in Jersey City. Grandparents on both sides of his family had been immigrants. He went to a private high school, Newark Academy, and then to Yale as an undergrad. Then he spent a year in Europe and came back to attend Fordham Law school in Manhattan. He then spent time in Arizona, then back to New Jersey, and eventually ended up working as a manager with a non-profit arts management company in North Carolina. He passed the bar in several of those states but never really did practice law. Eventually, he ended up moving to Utah where he could run through the mountains and play classical guitar.
Now he is retired and staying busy. He’s raising a puppy, taking piano lessons. Not as much guitar these days, but a little bit. And a little bit of freelance consulting work. He’s in New York right now. There are a number of art exhibits he really wanted to see before they closed.
When and where were you married?
Thirty years ago! We were married by a judge at Snowbird. Back then there was only one temple in Salt Lake, for everything from Reform to Orthodox, so it was the only game in town. And we spoke to the Rabbi there, but I wasn’t at a point in life where I was going to convert, so he refused to marry us.
What was your next move from Utah?
Since we had a very small wedding at Snowbird, we came back to Minneapolis for a reception with family and friends. And during the reception, the chair of the dance program from St. Olaf came through the receiving line and mentioned that there was a dance job at Gustavus and asked if I might be interested. So, I said, I don’t know, send me a job description. And when we were flying back to Utah Bob said, “I really liked Minnesota. I think I could enjoy living there.” And when I told him there was a job opening at Gustavus, he told me I should apply for it. I applied and was offered the position as Assistant Professor of dance.
So, we moved to St. Peter. At first Bob worked at a co-op, but later the vice president for advancement at Gustavus heard about Bob’s background with nonprofit arts management and ended up hiring him.
Let’s talk about Mount Zion how did you first get connected?
That’s kind of a funny story. I was thinking about that driving up. We knew we wanted to find a temple. If and when we had children, we … I, wanted to be sure that we had a unified family environment. I don’t think I was traumatized by it, but I was always aware as a little kid, and noticed all the families that went to church, and we went with our mom. My dad went to a different church, and I would go with him sometimes, and was fascinated by it, but I always felt like a visitor.
There wasn’t any urgency to finding a temple, until I was pregnant with Josh. Then I remember speaking to two different people, completely unrelated, and both of them mentioned that there was a Rabbi Elka at Mount Zion, and we should check it out. But within weeks of us starting to come to Mount Zion, Rabbi Elka announced she was leaving.
What has your experience been like at Mount Zion?
Well, it was during Josh’s confirmation year that I was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemo. And the Mount Zion Caring Community was amazingly supportive. At the age of 16, Josh being the fearless young man with a driver’s license that he is, would drive by himself from St. Peter to confirmation class on Wednesday nights, and before he left he would go to the kitchen freezer and find all the packages with our name on it. And then he would drive home with the food that people had left for us. And these weren’t just friends, there were even people I didn’t know.
There was just so much support…
I’m sorry. My resume says, “professional dreamer and public weeper,” so I get teary easily. And still today, at the recent Our Bodies, Our Souls event, women I barely know would come up to me and say, “I remember when you were bald, how are you now?”
How are you now?
I’m good, I’m good.
So, what does your current life at Gustavus involve?
Gustavus has never tried to keep me in a little box. I am still teaching dance and dance history. But also, for 20 years have been teaching a first-year writing seminar on the role of stories and storytelling, and how to use personal narratives to understand your own life. And I also teach a seminar for both upper and lower classmen called “Bouncing Forward,” on the topic of resiliency, including theory, and practices, and the science behind how some people navigate hard times better than others. It’s been really rewarding work.
Do you have retirement on the horizon?
I am on sabbatical this upcoming academic year. So, I am going to be moving the resiliency work forward and doing some creative work. I will be doing some teaching and research, including overseas, but will be back teaching at Gustavus in the fall of 2019. And from there I will take it a year at a time.
We were able to catch your production at the Fringe Festival a couple years ago. How did that come about?
I collaborated on that with an Israeli woman, Michal Shahak, who lives in Jerusalem. She and I first met at a conference about 28 years ago, and ever since have had a really profound and deep connection that I cannot entirely explain. She had a long career performing and teaching dance, but she is also a trauma therapist, and crossed into movement therapy and body mind centering, bringing awareness to the body.
And we had always wanted to dance together, and to go into the studio and make something. So, when I was going through chemotherapy I decided to throw my hat into the ring at the Fringe Festival and was selected, so she came to Minnesota to stay with us, and we went into the studio nearly every day for three weeks. We explored ways of putting movement to this moment in our lives, and these aging bodies.
Editor’s note a 2016 posting on the Gustavus website
The performance, titled Graywolves – a gerotranscenDANCE, is a suite of original dances brought to life by an intergenerational cast. According to the program description, aging is often seen as a downhill slide into a world of loss and diminishment in our youth-glorifying culture. Yet, long-lived lives are filled with opportunities to grow stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. This resilient view of aging is at the core of Graywolves.
Before we wrap up, can you catch me up on Josh?
He will be graduating in May from Gustavus, with majors in physics and English. He is looking into law schools and thinking of a career in intellectual property. He is going to New York today to meet with people at two law schools there.
So, let me ask you, where did this Humans thing come from?
Well for me it probably began with a program that we had at Mount Zion 15 or so years ago, where a group of maybe 20 or 30 of us were tasked with having “conversations” with about 8 or 10 families each. At first, I thought it sounded kind of hokey, but I really enjoyed it, got to know a lot of people much better, and heard a lot of great stories. Then a similar thing happened a few years ago when I went around to the homes of many of our older members, to take photos for our directory, and often ended up staying for an hour hearing their stories. So, all along I’ve been trying to think of how we might expand on that, to get to hear and share more of those stories.
We’ll have to do coffee again. One of the things that I teach in my resiliency class, is about cultivating connections. I’ve studied Tal ben Shahar, who taught a course about happiness to about 2000 students at Harvard. And he talks about connection, as the currency of happiness. So that’s what I’m hearing you say with this. How do we cultivate connections?
That’s exactly it. And happy arabesques.