Kristin Kusanovich: Dance, Courage and the Climate Crisis
Kristin Kusanovich is a senior lecturer in the Theater and Dance department. She has produced, choreographed and directed over 100 works in dance, drama, musical theatre, opera, film, and video. She has been a curriculum developer, teacher mentor, movement and vocal coach, and master teaching artist for 30 years in the professional sector as well is in PreK-12 grades at over 50 diverse school sites. As President of the California Dance Education Association, she works with a state-wide team to advance the quality of dance arts education in the state through legislation, advocacy, and professional development offerings. Kristen studied dance at Santa Clara as an undergraduate and worked in Minneapolis for 10 years before returning as a lecturer.
This year, Kristin founded a new project called tUrn: a week of events around the climate crisis. In this conversation, we discuss how Kristin’s unique arts background connects with her passion for sustainability, what motivated her to start tUrn, the use of the term “climate crisis” instead of “climate change,” and some of the best advice I’ve ever heard for incoming students.
Gavin Cosgrave: This is the first year of the tUrn project. What was the impetus of starting the project?
Kristin Kusanovich: I’m not an expert in environmental science, but I was schooled here as an undergrad and as a faculty member. I have gone to so many great talks at the on-campus centers, I was on panels and in think-tanks. I worked with the school of engineering, ended up being asked to lead leadership development teams, I was part of the Ignatian faculty forum, I did things with campus life. I had collaborated across 20 departments and about 8 different centers or units. I already had a lot of relationships, and I was already thinking in an interdisciplinary way.
My research for the past ten years has been transdisciplinary research on educational leadership, personal management, and the arts, so I’ve been using theater and plays to train future leaders in schools. We use plays instead of case studies and use theater to train students for future business contexts.
Then the news showed up. All my friends in Environmental Studies were telling me how terrible everything was looking, but I wasn’t feeling that it was in the general public’s discourse. I was reading the US Geological Survey and seeing how the waterline was going to rise around the bay and how the San Francisco airport was going to be underwater in 50 or 60 years. I thought, “Wouldn’t this be something people would be talking about? What’s going on here?”
Then enter the youth climate strikes and Greta Thunberg and other children rising up in the past two years. The school strikes really touched me since I also work with the Child Studies Department. It really struck me that we needed to do more and I needed to do more. Then I went to a lecture by an astrophysicist about demystifying global warming. When I got the physics side down and the stress that we’ve put children under, that together was enough to ignite me and help me reprioritize my time.
I felt like everyone underneath knew there was this disaster to talk about, but no one had the permission, the space or the time. So, I thought, “that’s what I can do.” I work in the elements of space and time as a choreographer. I can create an invitation for people to make space and make time to sit down or stand up or march with climate crisis at the forefront of the conversation.
What if the university could stop everything it’s doing and talk about the climate crisis for a week? For our students to come here and not study the climate crisis would be dishonest. That’s what propelled me.
GC: You were intentional about using the term “climate crisis” instead of “climate change.” What is the acceptable emotional response, and how do we stay motivated to take action on such a vast option?
KK: I noticed that I wasn’t getting properly motivated by the language of sustainability, because it implies there’s a long time to get this right. Even though the people running things maybe don’t think there’s a long time, they were using a gentle language. That seemed to be intentional—they don’t want to scare people into depression. I respect that, but what I can do as a theater artist is bring the drama of the situation forward. I think it’s the worst problem we’ve ever had as humanity, and it’s a shared common problem that goes beyond distinctions of difference.
Some people are already right in the midst of crisis, and others haven’t felt it yet. But it’s coming for everybody. I felt it was not important to say “climate change’ but say “crisis” so that people will normalize the use of the word and not get stuck in a stress-only reaction. People might be a little stressed, but they should be empowered. I believe that you can be stressed and empowered. As a dancer, you stress a muscle to build its power. We need to look at scary facts in the face and not turn away. I hoped that it wouldn’t produce more anxiety, although it’s necessary to be alarmed. If you’re not alarmed, you probably don’t know what’s going on. I think that it’s more anxiety-producing to not talk about something you know is happening. If there’s truth happening, you need to let that truth out.
GC: What piece of advice would you give to an incoming Santa Clara student?
KK: I would suggest that the student do things that are important. That they go to talks that are above their head. That they go into things they don’t understand and that they challenge themselves with clubs that are working on issues they care about.
Your social life can flow out of your commitments to inquiry, to learning, to caring, to a spiritual life, to religious practices. Your social life can be integrated with your academic life and with your whole self.
GC: What can an everyday person do to address the climate crisis in their everyday work?
KK: You can find out about what is unsustainable in the industry that you’re working in, then join the movements working to improve that. You can’t fix everything, but you can chip away at problems. I really encourage people too to pick up an issue that is important to them. Choose a group of people and species and support them.
We’re on this titanic moving toward a known negative outcome. All the problems we try to solve are happening on that ship, but the ship itself is moving in the wrong direction. Some people have to be more mindful of the big picture, maybe more people, but others need to be mindful of the individual and smaller networked concerns. But everyone has a role to play.