I met Dasha a few years back in a dance class in Berkeley. Dancing with someone gives you incredible insight into who they are. There is no where to hide. Sharing the space with Dasha brought me such joy and a sense of peace. I have witnessed them expand out into the world and invest in their communities with the privileges they hold. It is an honor to share this interview with Dasha. Please consider supporting Telaboratoria to ensure another year of practice is possible.
Aiano Nakagawa: Can you tell us a little bit about Telaboratoria and your first year in practice?
Dasha Chernova: Telaboratoria is a dance and theater improvisation program for LGBTQ adults in Eastern Europe and Russia. Our mission is to heal, empower and activate.
Currently Telaboratoria is run by me, Dasha Che, and Natasha Kim, the project’s administrator. I hope our staff can grow at some point.
Through this program we hope to facilitate a meaningful connection to oneself and one’s body, find empowerment and healing, develop solidarity and empathy within the group and in their communities and, ultimately, become more active and engaged citizens.
AN: What is your connection to the trans and queer community in Russia? Why did you choose St. Petersburg? Is it the safest city for queer/trans people?
DC: I was born and raised in a provincial town of Russia during the 90s. Growing up I was forced into a cis heteronormative reality. Soviet collapsed and people were just trying to make ends meet, there was no any information around, no conversation about anything, feminism, LGBTQ or human rights. I grew up surrounded by homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism as the norm. I felt suppressed and alone.
It took me years after I moved to the US at the age of 19, to come out first as a lesbian and then as a genderqueer, to recognize my white privilege, to re-learn things, to become an activist.
At some point, I hated Russia so much that I promised to myself to never go back, but it slowly changed. I realized that now I had enough resources, tools and privileges that I wanted to go back and give back to my queer and trans communities. It felt that I was needed there. Also, I wanted to finally merge my love for dance and teaching movement and my social justice lens.
I chose St. Petersburg because it is the second biggest city in Russia and the closest to Europe, so I hoped it would be less conservative. On one side, St. Petersburg is the hub of queer and trans culture in Russia, on the other – the ‘anti-gay’ law originated there, written by the former St. Petersburg deputee Milonov.
I studied in St. Petersburg while back in school at UC Berkeley. There, I got connected with trans and queer community, started attending events and offered a day-long dance workshop for trans folx and their partners. People loved the workshop and lamented that there was nothing like this in Russia for them.
After finishing UC Berkeley, I chose to change my life, applied for several grants, received a year-long financial support (that is over now) and moved to St. Petersburg.
AN: Can you tell me a bit more about the program at Telaboratoria?
DC: We offer two three-hour dance improvisation classes per week in ten-week sessions. Our program has been free and I hope to keep it this way for the next season. We usually ask folx to apply to participate and encourage them to attend all ten weeks. Classes usually have 14 to 20 participants. We also have an online social group where we post readings, videos, multidisciplinary creative movement homework, and information about different events. In addition, we organize either house events, Queer Authentic movement practice, Cuddle Parties or guest teachers’ workshops almost every week that are often open to a larger community.
During the last eleven months, the program has offered nearly 350 hours of dance and theater improvisation classes, workshops, jams, lectures and other events to the LGBTQ communities in St. Petersburg (Russia), Moscow (Russia), Yekaterinburg (Russia), Samara (Russia), and Kiev (Ukraine).
The program engaged more than 220 individuals from queer and trans communities.
AN: Many people in the U.S. have assumptions about Russia and what it’s like to be queer there. Are there any myths you’d like to dispel or important things for us to know? How does the queer community find each other, communicate, and exist together?
DC: Some of the assumptions are definitely true. A year and a half ago the case of Chechnya purge (where more than a hundred gay men were abducted and tortured) outraged the world. We have an infamous federal ‘anti-gay’ law that bans ‘gay propaganda’ to minors. The law, enforced in 2013, is written so vaguely that it allows it to ban any LGBTQ public expression altogether.
During the last decade of Putin’s Russia, we had several more draconian laws enforced. For instance, it is very hard to run an LGBTQ or any human rights organization in Russia officially or openly because it can easily be proclaimed a ‘foreign agent’ and undergo surveillance and fines. Also, for the last several years we had more than 200 cases of people, not necessarily activists, getting up to six years of a prison sentence for posting and reposting anything slightly political, even an anecdote, on the charges of ‘extremism.’
We do not have freedom of speech or freedom of public gatherings in Russia. Recently, my partner was arrested for doing their queer spoken word performance during an unsanctioned St. Petersburg Pride along with 30 other activists and unlawfully fined.
When organizing any queer event in Russia, even in such a cosmopolitan city as St. Petersburg, we have to go through a number of security checks: vet all the attendees, never share the addresses openly, sometimes hire security, make sure that all the attendees are 18+ (due to the ‘gay propaganda law’). Unfortunately, the ‘gay propaganda’ law created a void of support for LGBTQ teenagers who have become officially invisible. I wish I could offer Telaboratoria to queer and trans teens but it is too risky and can compromise the program’s safety and existence.
By choosing to be queer openly and, especially, do any activist work, we know that our lives are under a constant threat either from the state or the Russian society. And of course, oppression is intersectional; non-white queer and transgender Russians and migrants, LGBTQ folx with disability, elder LGBTQ people are even more vulnerable, since our society is so racist, ableist and ageist.
Yet, in this very stressful environment we do find pockets of support and have built a strong underground network. We use each other’s services, attend each other’s events. For instance, during the last year I always went to the same queer hairdresser whose clients were trans and queer folks mainly, went to a lesbian dentist, a gay gynecologist. I try to support my dance students’ projects, help folx from the community when they reach out as much as my personal resources allow me. The only way to survive is to support each other and have each other’s backs in the country that silences and oppresses us.
While in metropolitan cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg there are services for LGBTQ folx such as community centers, Queer Festival (the only cultural queer ten-day long event in St. Petersburg), up to four free therapy sessions, support groups, and lawyers, it is much harder for queer and trans people in the rest of Russia. Using my connections last year, I traveled to several cities of regional Russia to offer a series of dance workshops for trans individuals and found that many folx are more scared and prefer to socialize online mainly due to safety reasons. My dream for next year is to have enough funds and support to offer workshops in more Russian regions.
AN: Are there any risks people take by attending your workshop?
DC: There are definitely some risks involved when attending any LGBTQ gatherings in Russia, because by attending one automatically comes out, becomes somewhat visible. Natasha, our Telaboratoria assistant, and I keep working on making the program as safe as possible. We verify everyone who applies to be Telaboratoria participant making sure no one is an informant. We select dance studios that are secure. While the program is obviously political, we try to frame it as strictly cultural, just dance classes, nothing else. We ask everyone’s consent before taking their photos, filming or posting anything online. A few participants who work with children choose to use fake social media accounts when communicating with us about the program’s stuff.
Our students have different levels of political and LGBTQ involvement;some are activists while others are closeted queers, so we try to respect everyone’s level of comfort when people participate in the program. Interestingly, some of the less politicized folx have been becoming interested in learning more about politics and social justice and open to having different conversations. We don’t push anyone but we create space for a respectful exchange of ideas and knowledge through several mediums such as movement, discussions, collective art making.
AN: What do you hope people come away with from your workshop?
DC: I would like to facilitate an experience that is meaningful for the participants in their own way, whether it is to learn how to develop healthy boundaries, to practice being seen and perform, to get to know their body, to unleash their creativity, to find a community and strong bonds of friendship.
When facilitating Telaboratoria I attempt to create a more horizontal structure where students can have their autonomy, participate in lesson building and even have an opportunity to teach. Many, coming from an authoritarian educational system of Russia, are invested in executing tasks “correctly” and are relieved to learn that there is no “right way” and they are the experts of their own practice.
I also constantly emphasize the voluntary level of participation – students are encouraged to take breaks, step out, self-care and assess their state any time something doesn't feel good. I talk a lot about expanding their comfort zone but doing it gently and with many little steps forward and back.
AN: How have participants reacted to your program?
DC: Sometimes people share ‘AHA’ moments during the classes which makes progress seem visible and clear. Similarly, when reading folx’s responses to the questionnaires we collect several times during each session, I can either see a straightforward appreciation for the program in their lives or track more delicate changes such as the way they talk about their bodies, physicality, emotional state, and the community. Other times I am able to observe someone through their process over the course of several months - the growing level of comfort and confidence in their creative expression and body gestures. But at times, the progress does not seem linear or obvious at all: sometimes people get frustrated and anxious during the classes, stop attending or keep attending but lay on a couch, immersed in their phones and not participating. I have been learning to assess and evaluate these types of reactions as well instead of simply regarding them as failures.
It has been interesting to see the ways that people start to relate to one another and bond. I appreciated that folx have begun to use our social media group to ask for an advice, invite people to a social event, offer housing or a job, etc. Once, one of the participants, a young trans man, lost his house due to a conflict with a roommate and was able to stay at another student’s place while getting a part-time job through another. These expressions of mutual solidarity make me believe that Telaboratoria is an emerging powerful community built on the trust and empathy that we practice in our classes.
AN: What are some struggles you come up against?
DC: There are definitely structural and institutional struggles. It was so hard to find dance studios with gender neutral bathrooms and changing rooms, and, unfortunately, impossible to find studios that are wheelchair accessible. I do feel tired and desperate sometimes, feeling that I am coming up against a status quo, feeling that my work is just a drop in the ocean and will never change anything. Sometimes I feel stuck but never fully ready to give up.
The work that I chose to do requires a really strong commitment to self-care and developing healthy boundaries. In fact, a big part of self-care in this case is about creating clear boundaries. The population I work with has a vast amount of trauma that I as a teacher have been learning to hold space for through a movement practice while not ingesting it. I have been learning how to say no, step back, choose to do less at times.
I had to accept that not everyone would like my teaching style, some folx would leave, others wouldn’t attend regularly. I had to learn how to deal with students who were disruptive and provocative or who became emotionally triggered and demanded special attention during the class. Now, I am convinced that I am able to carry out this type of work only if I have an ongoing access to therapy as well as a supervisor that I work closely with and can fall back on if something goes astray.
It is much harder to find self-care practices in Russia: it is freezing for the most of the year and therefore access to outdoors is limited, fresh food is often unavailable, many folx are depressed and live in fear of being persecuted for their activism or simply for being how they are. Still my work in Russia moves me out of my bed every morning. During the last year, I have been developing different collaborations and partnerships with feminist, LGBTQ and human rights organizations, artists and activists. This year I feel much more equipped to go back for the second season of Telaboratoria.
AN: How can we support you and our queer/trans siblings in Russia?
DC: I wish there was more cooperation between Russian and American queers; there are a few folx that are doing work in both places but not that many.
I also want more people to know about the program, I want to keep finding allies that do similar kinds of work, create partnerships, exchange knowledge and ideas. Last year I was put in touch with a British-American queer performance artist, Brian Lobel who was able to come and teach a workshop at Telaboratoria. I hope for more collaborations this coming year.
Of course, another support that this project needs is financial support. We had the cushion of a big grant last year and this year we are on our own. This fall I am back to California for three months to talk about the program and actively fundraise. We started our crowdfunding campaign on Sept 1st and I would love folx to share it widely with those who can get inspired, donate if they can, reach out with questions and ideas, stay in touch. I feel humble, scared and in awe at the same time. It is huge endeavor but also feels like magic to reach out to the community in this way. To see our beautiful crowdfunding video, share and donate, please, follow this link.