In this small-world community of ours, we often hear the same names being mentioned over and over without really knowing the backstory of a person. In this case, I’m hoping to change that and improve your world just a little bit. Nadia Oussenko is a face you may recognize, but her contribution to the arts is much, much more than you would probably ever imagine. This smiling, dancing woman in frilly black skirts and dark eyes is an inspiration, and a name you should get familiar with as fast as you can. From her suitably creepy film inspiration and keen fashion sense, to her experience at MichFest, Nadia opens up about her life (in progress). Just in case you’re intrigued enough to approach her in person, we got her to reveal her favourite hang outs and drink of choice…just, you know, in case. We sat down…well, virtually…and chatted about just some of the amazing accomplishments and future endeavors of this incredible dreamer.
The L Stop: Tell me a little of your backstory…where are you from, who your childhood crush was on, you know…basic stuff.
Nadia: I was born and raised in Rogers Park (Chicago). I’m an only child. I had lots and lots of childhood crushes, too many to name! I was and still am a daydreamer. I was always a performer, “starved” for attention. First violin, then ballet. Then theater and chorus in HS.
TLS: I know you’re very involved in the arts of all sorts…you’re a dancer, choreographer, and work in all aspects of film. What was your first art-love?
N: Dance was definitely my first art love. The Flashdance soundtrack sold me! I’ve been improvising and choreographing moves since I was about 8 years old.
TLS: What films inspired you to get involved in filmmaking?
N: Ha this is a funny story actually- When I was in grad school for dance, I went to see The Ring and it scared the living shit out of me! I wanted to know why- the relationship between quick cuts and sound gave me a guttural reaction. So I took an independent study and learned Final Cut Pro, and used all this stock footage to make a film to be projected onto a dance I choreographed for the stage. The following year I tore my ACL, and so with extra time on my hands, I took a video for artists class and started making dances for the camera- editing became my means of choreographing. I also was really inspired by Belgian choreographer Anne Theresa deKeersmaker-she made a film called “Rosas Danst Rosas” in the 90’s. Actually, Beyonce was accused of plagiarizing deKeersmaker’s film in her video “Countdown”.
TLS: Did you have any formal training or was it all passion-based?
N: I had formal training in dance, but not film. After Grad school, I sought out a small production company in Highland Park (Bitter Jester Creative) and they taught me how to edit wedding and bar mitzvah videos as if they were prize-winning documentaries. I learned a lot from them, and I still work closely with Daniel Kullman, director of photography, for most of my dance films. I also took some dance for camera workshops and learned about the partnership between camera and dancer. That opened up my world a lot. I love feeling like I’m on a roller-coaster when I watch dance film.
TLS: Tell me about your film that just recently debuted. What is the story behind it, why did you feel it was important to make?
N: Dance of the Queer Tide Faeries premiered in May 2012 for a dance film website called “Dances Made to Order“. It was an online film fest where the audience chose topics for us to incorporate into our film, and we had 2 weeks to come up with something. It was great because we had to think fast and it was truly a collaborative production. The dancers and I came up with some movement phrases, Wendy Jo Carlton (of Easy Abby, and Jesse and Jaime are Not Together) codirected, and Dan Kullman was able to read my mind in terms of all the camera stuff. An artist friend helped build a 8×16 foot canvas that we painted on camera. It’s a light-hearted piece about 3 modern day sprites who congregate by the sea. In attempt to freeze a picture-perfect horizon, they paint a backdrop for their colorful dance number. You can watch it, along with 2 other dance films, for just 10 bucks at dancesmadetoorder.com.
TLS: What is your best on-set memory? Obviously, aside from the 100 degree day we filmed Easy Abby inside a tiny non-air conditioned apartment. I think my shirt still smells.
N: For “On Falling. . .”, which was composed of vignettes related to falling on different surfaces and structures, I was attached to a bungee for 6 hours while people threw me around. I can’t believe I didn’t throw up. But later that night, I felt like a bouncing ball.
TLS: How do you feel about Chicago’s queer support for the arts? Is it hard to be a queer woman and get your name out there still?
N: Actually, it’s interesting, because I never identified as a “queer” artist until recently. I was always just an artist. But lately my work has become more queer-focused. I’ve explored same sex relationships my dance work, and I’ve also been co-directing/editing (along with C. Byrne) a documentary called Leather Queen, which is about Chicago Queer performer Tamale’s run for International Ms. Leather (PLEASE COME TO OUR FUNDRAISER, “BOSSY,” AT PARLOUR THIS FRIDAY!). So all of a sudden I’m identifying my work as “queer” in grant proposals and in dance film festivals. And I do feel a lot of support from the queer community in Chicago. But my work isn’t just for queer people. I aim to make films relatable to all, and queer-ness relatable to all. I feel like I’ve just widened my network, not that it was intentional. But all of a sudden I was like, hey- I’m part of the queer community! Let me reach out to them! And because of the awesome movement that his happening around gay rights, as a queer artist, I feel welcomed by all.
TLS: I know you were really excited about going to Mich Fest last year after you won tickets…how was the experience for you?
N: Last year was my first year at Mich Fest, AND I had a dance film showing there as well, which I was really excited about. I was only going to go for the weekend and I ended up going for almost an entire week because after I had already purchased a weekend ticket, I won the raffle which gave me 3 extra days. It was a whirlwind. At first I was nervous about what to expect, but after a couple days of acclimation, it felt like home. I’m really bummed I can’t go this year because I’m participating in a dance film workshop. I’m actually yearning to be in nature with a bunch of awesome womyn! It was so freeing.
TLS: What was the BEST and WORST moment of Mich Fest for you?
N: BEST: hmm that’s a personal question. WORST: The rain! We didn’t do a good job rain-proofing the floor of our tent so there was a river running through it! Then our air mattress had a leak in it so we had to run the air pump in the middle of the night.
TLS: How do you feel about the controversy surrounding Mich Fest and its current spotlight as being, um, let’s say “less than supportive to the trans community?”
N: It’s a good question. I’m completely supportive of the trans community, and feel like it’s ridiculous for them not to be included, but then I can see the other side too. It’s hard because people feel so strongly about this issue and it’s hard to get a dialogue going. I’d be interested in hearing more about it from both sides.
TLS: One of your signature items is the amazing gun-holster-purse that you often wear…what is the story behind that?
N: First I discovered the Utility belt when I was in San Francisco shooting “Leather Queen.” Tamale was my fashion sensei. We went to Five and Diamond and she helped me pick it out. When I realized how not being weighed down by a swinging purse or a bag fit in with my “all-terrain” femme lifestyle, I decided I needed something that would work for the winter over my coat and long sweaters. So then I just outright copied Tamale and got almost the same holster one she has. I said to her: “The only reason I wouldn’t get it is because you have it and I’m afraid you will be offended!” She was flattered, so I made the purchase.
TLS: Rapid fire! Xena or Wonder Woman?
N: oh shit! Don’t make a Libra decide! Wonder woman was my idol as a child. Xena was my idol in college before I even started dating women! How about both of them in a mud wrestling match?
TLS: Favourite gay movie?
N: Bound. So. Hot. I have a thing for film noir too. And the Watchowski brothers (when they were brothers) actually lived in my building.
TLS: Favourite pair of shoes?
N: Harley boots. They are old. Just got the zippers replaced.
TLS: Best bar or club to shake your booty at?
N: Parlour is like “Cheers” for me. I feel comfortable enough to shake my booty there anytime!
TLS: Drink of choice?
N: French 75 with a splash of compari
TLS: You permed your hair a little while ago…is the grass really greener?
N: Yes! I’m bringing the perm back. I feel so much more ME! Like I had curly hair living in the straight body (of my hair).
TLS: Anything else you want us to know about you? What’s next? Where can we catch your film? All these fabulous details 🙂
N: Come to Parlour next friday for Bossy: The Leather Queen Cometh!
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About Leah Schein
Leah is a born and bred Chicagoan, and considers herself extremely fortunate to be raised by amazing liberal parents in Logan Square. Coming from a long family history of equality activism, the crazy world of politics feels like home to her. Her upbringing allowed her to fully appreciate her love of tacos, and provided the support needed to be independent and insane. She is a happy survivor of the public school system, all the way through her undergrad years, culminating with a BA in anthropology. Her love of travel and all things adventurous led to the pursuit of a Master of Science from sunny ol’ England, where she happily grasped a conservation degree and ran off to live in a number of rain forests to research nocturnal primates. Through the amazing diversity she was fortunate to be raised amongst, she has an unwavering appreciation of all cultures and peoples, and has used this to form the foundation of her outspoken support of civil rights. You may have seen her running around Boystown/Tuna town over the last decade, or at events she volunteers at for the Human Rights Campaign. It’s possible you spied her at the Silent Film Festival. That strange woman getting into a wrestling match in the leaves on Foster Ave beach at 3am…that definitely wasn’t her. She couldn’t be more excited about sharing her love of science, and it’s role in our daily lives, with the community she loves. Nerds are cool, people. They drink martini’s too.