Over the years, Christmas in Christ Chapel has increasingly featured dances in its services.
These dances help audience members to visualize the theme expressed and the messages shared during the Christmas in Christ Chapel experience.
Theater and dance professor Michele Rusinko is heavily involved in creating these dances for the services.
Gustavus’ popular and beloved show stands apart from many other schools’ concerts.
“…[Gustavus’ show] is a service and not simply a concert. Within that context, dance has been seen in the Lutheran liturgical setting for many, many years…Ours is always conceptually grounded. Yes, it relates to Christmas but it is rarely solely about Christmas. There is always text and music, and some years dance is included as a means of investigating and expressing the ideas central to the year’s theme,” Rusinko said.
“For Christians of the world, the birth of Jesus represents crossing from the sacred to the earthly. Throughout the old and new testament, and of course in the current day, there are a multitude of stories of crossing borders – of refugees and immigrants. This year’s service investigates all these border crossings, and in particular, the dance tries to make some of these crossings visual.”
Rusinko plays a major role in the entire process of creating the event.
Creating the dances is a process that relies on input from both the directors and the dancers.
“Since I am thoroughly involved in the production process, I strive to have a deep understanding of the year’s theme. Then I invite student dance artists to co-create with me. Some years I generate most of the movement material and other years the dancers generate most of the movement material and I curate and shape the material they generate. It is always a collaborative process between the artistic director, the ensemble directors, the dancers and myself,” Rusinko said.
Rusinko also added that the dancers express the Christmas story through visuals and movement.
The theme of this year’s service is “Love Beyond Borders”, focusing on the idea of crossing borders. The dancers aim to represent this theme in an interpretive and abstract way.
“For Christians of the world, the birth of Jesus represents crossing from the sacred to the earthly. Throughout the old and new testament, and of course in the current day, there are a multitude of stories of crossing borders – of refugees and immigrants. This year’s service investigates all these border crossings, and in particular, the dance tries to make some of these crossings visual. Some people can listen to these narratives either in Biblical verses or in the lyrics of a song-and visual all of this. For others, it is helpful to have the dancers create some visual representation. The dances we create are never strictly literal-there is always a level of abstraction to allow for breadth of interpretation,” Rusinko said.
This theme also emphasizes the similarities we share.
“Broadly speaking it is a message of shared humanity. There is no such thing as ‘us and them’. We have all crossed borders from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Whether your relatives spent forty years in the desert, or crossed the ocean to the new land, we carry a history of crossing borders,” Rusinko said.
“We really wanted to make sure that our costumes fit our time era of when our immigrants immigrated to the United States. The European immigrants are dressed in clothes that would fit the time period the Irish and Poland people would have wore during that time. The Hispanic immigrants are wearing more traditional clothes to represent now.”
-Junior Brigid Murray
Junior Brigid Murray, one of the dancers in the production, was excited to represent the theme in a visual aspect for the members of the congregation.
“I think [the dancers give] an amazing visual representation to the music…I love telling a visual story with movements along with the music,” Murray said.
Deciding on where the dances fit into the program usually happens once the music has been taken into consideration.
“For [Christmas in Christ Chapel], we generally select the music and the text first and then decide where dance could support the theme. In this particular service, I had a strong idea of having groups of dancers crossing the chancel area representing emmigration [and] immigration across different periods of time and different locations on the globe. I explained this idea to the production committee and Dr. Ruth Lin, the orchestra conductor suggested a piece of music that seemed to capture the idea of this kind of pilgrimage,” Rusinko said.
She went on to comment further on a part in the program where student choreographers participated.
“Later in the program there is a beautiful poem by Jan Richardson, that is read by Aleah Felton and danced by Nathan Thao, PhePhe Quevi and Katie Rhotan, the three student choreographers – the three who have collaborated with me every step of the way, and the last piece danced, the music was selected by Elisabeth Cherland, the director of the Lucia Singers. So as noted, there is lots of give and take, lots of collaboration,” Rusinko said.
In addition to the placement of the dances, there is also the process of creating the attire for the dancers and making sure this fits and enhances the theme and the narratives being told and shared.
“We really wanted to make sure that our costumes fit our time era of when our immigrants immigrated to the United States. The European immigrants are dressed in clothes that would fit the time period the Irish and Poland people would have wore during that time. The Hispanic immigrants are wearing more traditional clothes to represent now,” Murray said.
Working with students and the entire choreographic process is one that is loved by Rusinko.
“I have often said, my favorite place is in the studio creating dancing with my students. So I enjoy the process. I also love watching students take ownership in the whole process and then have the opportunity to really shine throughout the five performances,” Rusinko said.
The importance of the arts to show our world, including different possibilities for it, is highlighted in the performances.
“I think we are living through an extremely challenging time. 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 arts that provide a representation of the world as it can be-the world we aspire to live in. It is my intention through the dances we have created for this program – to do both,” Rusinko said.