Elena Del Vecchio Rusnak could take The Lovely Bones and re-imagine it as a haunting, dream-like work of modern dance.
For her biographic short on Isadora Duncan, Rusnak skillfully mixed dialogue with choreography, shaping them into a soliloquy of sound and movement that brought to life the exotic 19th-century dance icon.
Rusnak passed away earlier this week at age 68.
When Connecticut’s Big Read initiative asked Rusnak to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to young audiences, she gathered an ensemble of community dancers, actors, and musicians, and transformed them into the people of Maycomb Alabama. As Harper Lee typed away, those remarkable characters came to physical life: they moved, they spoke, and they sang. As one collective voice, they embodied the courage of Tom Robinson and shared valuable lessons on racism.
This was the world of Rusnak, a choreographer-storyteller drawn to literature and dance, and a masterful educator who used the arts as tools to reveal the world to students while inspiring them to become thinkers, doers, and activists.
Rusnak had a rare blood disease called amyloidosis, diagnosed just four months ago. Her passing leaves the dance community without one of its strongest, most generous voices. It was Rusnak’s drive and commitment that empowered dance education across the community college system. Her efforts single-handedly led to the first true Associate’s dance and fine arts degree program in the state of Connecticut.
Rusnak reminded us that our imaginations matter. I watched her first-hand as a fellow teacher for ten years beginning in 1998, and I learned continuously about connecting creativity to student learning, and how to build a rich and active arts community. In her cozy studio at Naugatuck Valley Community College, where she was Professor of Dance and also led the Department of the Arts for many years, Rusnak proved on a daily basis that dance, in partnership with the arts and humanities, was essential to the growth of students, helping them to mature and bring creativity into other aspects of life.
A dynamic, tireless educator, Rusnak did more than teach great courses in dance and creative writing. She created experiences. She built a dance department from scratch, shaped a student dance company, choreographed thrilling new works each year, and spent many hours with her students, often working one on one to guide and coach them. She also found the time to collaborate with other arts departments at the college, and partnered with countless dance organizations throughout the Waterbury community, all in an effort to promote dance education and spark people’s artistic spirit and self awareness.
Rusnak represented everything that’s courageous and challenging about the arts, and she was most passionate about the vocabulary of the body and its ability to give us uniquely visceral and emotional experiences through dance-storytelling. Whether you were involved as a dancer in one of her modern pieces, or watching from the audience as her students tested the waters, there was something you felt so deeply and personally when her stories came to life. She had the gift of transferring her own emotions and personal ideas into a project.
Rusnak was also brave in her exploration of unique dance forms and out-of-the-box storytelling concepts. I fondly recall our collaboration on a theater production of "Equus," the play by Peter Shafer about a troubled 17-year old and his destruction of a group of horses in the name of worship. Casting both dance and theater students, Rusnak worked to imagine and shape the most sensuous and powerful theatrical horses I have ever seen on stage for this play. Her commitment to our collaborative process was endless and joyous, and wow, did those students shine.
As the Department of the Arts Chair for many years, Elena also fought tirelessly to make sure students had access to new arts programs, excellent facilities, and course offerings that would make most two-year colleges envious. Under her watchful eye, our performance spaces and classrooms were equal, if not superior to those at our state’s four-year universities. She had your back when it came to your artistic needs and educational ideas if they could strengthen the arts and enhance lives in the greater Waterbury community.
Through Rusnak's vision, the arts weren’t just a token creative outlet or a supporting player in the scheme of community college education. If you ever watched her work, whether in class or through a production, you’d instantly recognize what I mean. She had it, and helped her students to find their own, personal voice. Her approach was a combination of determination, vision, passion, and never being afraid of speaking your mind. When she tackled a project, the stakes were always high (the sign of a true artist), and the demands on students were fair and aimed at stretching them; deepening their understanding of a larger world. She helped young artists to make personal connections to the work.
Rusnak found a way to inspire everyone to dance to their own inner music. She will be deeply missed in the Connecticut dance and arts community.
Donations can be made in Rusnak's memory to Boston University School of Medicine, Amyloid Research Fund.