In 2017 Bay Area-based and Russian-born Dasha Chernova began Telaboratoria (in Russian, “telo” means body and “laboratoria” means laboratory), a program offering dance and theater improvisation classes and workshops designed to heal and empower LGBTQ+ communities in Russia. In November, Dasha heads back to continue the program, and before leaving they shared more about this work with In Dance.
How did dance enter your life?
As a child growing up in the post-Soviet economic ruins of a provincial town in the 90s, I was very physically active, climbing and jumping off fences, exploring abandoned construction sites, basements and dumping grounds. Looking back I can see where my love for site specific work and industrial landscapes comes from. My mother saw that I had a great need for bodily expression and put me into dance classes, but the authoritarian structure did not work for me, I was bad at remembering choreography and following the instructions, so was soon expelled.
I was able to pursue dance as a young adult after immigrating to the US fourteen years ago. It happened naturally: I moved to the Mission district of San Francisco and was surrounded by arts, my English was very poor and dance allowed me to express myself. I was also undocumented for the first five years of my life here and felt invisible on a fundamental level, therefore dance gave me a sense that I existed and was seen, through my body.
First I started working with Harupin-Ha, a Berkeley-based Butoh collective, then I continued in a duet with an artistic partner Deia DeBrito – we created clownish post-apocalyptic performance narratives that we showed at local black box theaters, bars, parks and backyards. I started formal dance training very late, at least compared to more traditional stories of entry into a dance practice. I took my first ballet class at 21, my first contemporary class at 22. By this point I was so immersed that started building my life, jobs and friendships around dance. I was lucky to live in a rent-controlled housing in San Francisco at that time which gave me the privilege to focus on seeking out dance mentors and to have time to usher at shows. At some point I performed extensively in dance and theater works around the Bay. I also have discovered my passion for teaching movement and eventually went back to school to study dance and pedagogy at UC Berkeley.
What challenges face LGBTQ+ people in Russia?
This is a complex question that I can answer on multiple levels. First, due to the infamous federal “anti-gay” law that was passed in 2013, LGBTQ+ Russians do not have a freedom of expression of their identity publically. The law is phrased quite vague but it basically bans any ‘gay propaganda’ to minors and thus gives the state a permission to target LGBTQ+ individuals.
Second, the majority of Russians still hold conservative views towards queer and trans* citizens. A lot of it is based on the recent government-imposed anti-Western views, neo-conservative wave that is on the rise, and also, a simple lack of knowledge and misrepresentation of queer folx [a gender neutral variation of the word “folks”] in media. We barely have any neutral to positive representation of LGBTQ+ people publically – our communities are still either demonized or exotified.
The level of stigmatization is so high that many queers never come out to their families, hide their relationships from co-workers and neighbors – remaining closeted is often the only way to stay safe and protect your loved ones. It is understandable as there are real threats of legal persecution and hate crimes. For instance, in recent years many queer educators were fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity once outed by right wing homophobic activists through surveilling educators’ private social media accounts. Those of us who “look” or “act” queer live under a constant threat of being harassed or physically attacked in public places.
There are other challenges within LGBTQ+ communities such as internalized homophobia and transphobia, depression, self-medicating, lack of support, and financial struggles, especially for many transgender folx. Oppression is intersectional and older queers, queers with disabilities, queer and trans* migrants experience even more hardships. While the capitals, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg do have some resources for their LGBTQ+ populations, living queer and trans* in regional Russia is much tougher.
How and when did Telaboratoria get started?
When I left Russia at the age of 19 I wasn’t out, in fact, I did not know any other Russian queer/trans* people. I visited Russia seven years later, and to my great surprise, met several openly queer people that I’ve kept my connection with. Those connections started bringing me back to Russia and eventually resulted in my offering a three-day performance and movement workshop to a group of queers in Moscow and then a workshop to trans* people and their partners in St. Petersburg.
Somehow everything started falling into place, I realized that I could give back to my communities, that I finally had right resources and capacity to return and offer my skills and energy. Still it took some years to be able to commit to this kind of work in Russia. I spent 2016 looking for grants that would support the project at a larger scale, was extremely fortunate to receive a yearlong funding and I moved to St. Petersburg to start the program.
Describe Telaboratoria’s activities and programs.
Currently Telaboratoria is run by myself and Natasha Kim, the administrator of the program. The bulk of the program consists of two three-hour creative movement classes each week in ten-week sessions.
The program is open to all LGBTQ+ identities: cis-gendered LGB folx and trans* folx. Some participants identify as LGBTQ+ activists while others are closeted queers. We get about 14 to 20 attendees in each group. In addition to these regular classes we offer monthly workshops with guest teachers of different movement arts disciplines, such as puppetry, acting, performance, and voice. We also organize a bi-weekly Queer Authentic Movement practice, potlucks, site specific practice, Cuddle Parties. We have a social media group where we post readings, videos, assignments, thoughts. I also travel to regions of Russia and to Eastern Europe to lead workshops in their local LGBTQ+ community centers and would like to do more of it this coming year. Altogether we have impacted more than 220 LGBTQ+ individuals.
I believe that oppression happens through people’s bodies, and there are multiple studies that demonstrate that trauma is stored in our bodies. However, many trans* and queer folx in Russia do not have access to spaces where they can safely connect with their bodies, and even more so, spaces where people can have a collective experience of that connection. Telaboratoria provides ongoing collective creative movement practices. I am convinced that when those whose bodies are systemically and institutionally marginalized move together, have a courage to expose their soft and hard selves in front of each other, collective empathy is generated and strong bonds and support system begin to develop.
What has been the most rewarding part of this work?/ Can you share a story from your work in Russia that was particularly meaningful to you?
The work that I do is oftentimes hard, but I feel a strong sense of purpose, especially, when I hear about and see the impact of the program on the participants’ lives. One student shared that attending Telaboratoria classes made him feel grounded and brave enough to come out to his community as trans. Another expressed that throughout the program she learned that she could touch others and be touched in a non-sexual way and that discovery opened new ways of connecting to people for her. There have been a lot of ‘first times’ for all of us in this program. Some people danced in front of others for the first time, made choreography for the first time, took on leadership roles for the first time, talked about their bodies in a positive light for the first time, studied their anatomy for the first time. It was my first time designing a one year program through series of trials and mistakes, trying to actively listen to students’ needs, my own intuition and remain flexible and humble. The program applies the principles of both autonomy and collectivity in its methodology. The participants are encouraged to practice their personal boundaries, learn to listen to their own needs and the group needs. In fact, we spend a lot of time working on boundaries through a number of creative exercises and this practice offers people more freedom in trusting themselves and others. That process has been a very healing and rewarding experience for me personally.
Also, slowly, some really powerful things started to happen last year. People created friendships that they took outside of the dance studios. It has been wonderful to see people using our social media group page to invite each other to different events, share housing and job information, reach out for help. Classes opened space for celebration of multiple identities and expressions where everyone felt welcomed and safe. Telaboratoria became more than just a dance program, it became a community that has been growing.
What kind of obstacles has Telaboratoria had to face?
There are quite a lot of structural, institutional and now, financial, obstacles that we face. Access and safety are the main ones on our list. So far it has been impossible to find dance spaces that would accommodate people in wheelchairs. We struggle to find studios that would have gender neutral bathrooms. We always need to undergo several safety checks when looking for dance spaces and admitting new participants. Unfortunately, we cannot offer the practice for people under 18-year-old because of the “anti-gay” law (which is awful because teenagers really need a program of this kind) and have to check the applicants’ age when they sign up.
There is very little international funding that is allocated to queer Russian-based initiatives due to the worsening political relations. We started crowdfunding (gofundme.com/dance-for-lgbtq-in-russia) and are looking for other ways of funding the program.
What programs or activities do you have coming up?
Classes begin mid-November (when I return to St. Petersburg from the Bay Area), although a few Telaboratoria participants have been organizing a regular Authentic Movement practice which makes me really happy. Once I am back we will resume the classes and workshops in a regular format. I am excited to involve more dance educators as guest teachers of Telaboratoria.
I have been working with a Finnish non-binary drag performer Jaana Pirskanen to bring them to Russia and co-organize a series of drag workshops for the queer and trans* communities of St. Petersburg. I have also been collaborating with a queer performance artist from St. Petersburg, Marina Shamova, to design and offer a series of Gender and Body workshops for Russian dance communities this winter and spring.
What’s a future goal or dream?
In the end of last May, Natasha, the program’s administrator, and I designed an elaborate questionnaire for Telaboratoria’s participants. Among the questions there was a call for imagining the future of Telaboratoria in some other alternative reality where repressive economic and political systems of Russia were not in place. People loved that question and went on describing their visions of the program. Many dreamed of having our own dance studio or even a whole building, Telaboratoria dance festival, regular multiple teachers, classes that would include trans* and queer teenagers and elders, an opportunity to go on a week-long nature retreat together, a way to collaborate and exchange with queer/trans* dance programs in other countries. Who knows, maybe we can turn some of these dreams into reality.
Of course, my biggest goal is to find ways to make Telaboratoria financially sustainable so the program can continue, grow and develop.
I would like to make our classes more integrated and accessible, for instance, bring more queer and trans* folx with disabilities into classes. I want to continue and expand partnerships that we already have, such as working with some feminist organizations, political art organizations, and to make new ones, such as nonprofits that work with migrants and elders.
What (or who) is inspiring you right now?
I have been reading/watching Queer Dance, a multi-platformed project by Clare Croft and feeling very inspired. Cat Brooks who is running for Oakland Mayor right now and who co-founded Anti Police-Terror Project gives me hope. An emerging music artist from Kirgizstan, Zere Asylbek, who just released a brave music video statement about women’s liberties and rights recently blew my mind. I carry inspiration from my dance and performance mentors such as Olivia Corson, Hiroko Tamano, Sara Shelton Mann, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Joe Goode and many others. Those who inspire me are courageous to challenge the system and imagine a more just world through the process of active doing, by using the tools and resources that are available to them.
What’s a piece of advice you have been given that you still hold on to today?
My habitual pattern is to rush to a next thing after completing something, to not take enough pauses to recuperate and reflect. Recently I have been trying to live by my wise friend’s advice about pausing and remembering to notice what I have already done and what others who came before me did and have time for celebration and appreciation. That practice seems to be more important for me as I mature.
This article appeared in the November 2018 edition of In Dance.