Dancer, Activist, Editor in Chief! Kosta Karakshyan has it all
Tell us a little about yourself. Imagine you are auditioning to go on Big Brother Bulgaria, how would you describe yourself?
My name is Kosta Karakashyan, and I am a Bulgarian-Armenian director, choreographer, dancer and the editor-in-chief of Out.bg, a brand new Bulgarian LGBTQ+ digital platform. I use he/him pronouns and, I’m artistic, driven and empathetic. I like to give second chances and I tend to look for emotions and beauty. I started dancing when I was 5 and then I had my first professional job as the youngest ever professional dancer and choreographer on Dancing with the Stars Vietnam when I was 18.
Since then I’ve danced and choreographed across Norway, Germany, Egypt, Vietnam, Canada, Japan and many other places. I feel happiest when I am creating and producing projects with my talented friends. On Big Brother I would probably go home early because I wouldn’t cause any drama for the other contestants…
Why is dancing so important to you? How did your creative instinct develop?
Dancing is an incredible way to communicate and express truths that cannot be put into words. It is a very sophisticated way of dealing with our emotions and traumas and working through things. Growing up, my main focus was ballroom dancing, which isn’t incredibly creative when it comes to your own input. It’s very focused on execution and gaining a competitive edge over your opponents, so there’s not a lot of room for freedom and making mistakes.
Later on, when I joined DWTS I had to meet the producers every Monday with a new idea for our performance including choreography, costume, music and lighting ideas. What was unique was that you couldn’t just do what you wanted, but you had to take into consideration the profile and strengths of the celebrity you were partnering. It was a crash course in creating with a brief in mind, and I really loved the strategy that went into planning a performance.
Over time I realized that choreographing, directing and producing projects would give me the flexibility to have a real process. From then it was a lot of sharpening my intuition and being super observant and learning from others more experienced than me.
We recently conducted an interview with David France for the documentary ‘Welcome to Chechnya’. You worked on the film, and you also choreographed a dance- which gained you a lot of intention. Can you tell us how this happened, and the impact that it had on you?
The first project I did was my documentary dance film WAITING FOR COLOR. I created it while I was living in New York, mostly to cope with the horrible news coming out of Chechnya. As a gay man coming from Eastern Europe, the situation there felt like a terrible reminder of what the fate of queer people in my region of the world could be. I remember feeling such a huge disconnect between those stories and having the freedom to walk down the street and let’s say make out with someone in Hell’s Kitchen or Chelsea.
I felt like I needed to make a response, and as an artist, dance and film were the two media I felt strongest in, so I started developing a dance film. I printed out a report by the Russian LGBT Network that had anonymous testimonies of actual victims that had been tortured and released, and I let those stories affect my movement. It was a very organic and minimal process, and then I asked my close friends to contribute to the project in-kind. The whole film was created with zero budget, and my wonderful DoP Kevin Chiu and composer Jude Icarus did a lot of magic to make it happen. Once the dance film was released, it snowballed and got a lot of international press which also grabbed the attention of one of the line producers of David’s film.
When I was in New York, I remember getting a very cryptic email and then a phone call about a project about Chechnya. I thought it was some sort of trap, and I was in danger because I had made the dance film. We set up a meeting and the first person I met was one of the producers, Igor Myakotin, who had received his education in Bulgaria at the American University - which is another great coincidence.
Working with David, Igor and the rest of the team was amazing. They knew they were making history with exposing this story and they had incredible security measures. I was shown the scenes with my character and we had to match the facial expressions to our best ability. Seeing the final result was amazing.
You were suddenly in the media as an openly queer person. What was the reaction?
It was wild in the beginning! I would come back to Bulgaria during my university breaks in the winter and summer, and I would feel this very strong activist energy in New York and try and carry it with me to Bulgaria. We organized a screening of WAITING FOR COLOR in Sofia with Single Step foundation, who is an amazing NGO here in Bulgaria that helps LGBTQ+ teenagers come out and empowers them through the experience. We did a panel that contextualizes human rights for LGBTQ+ people across Western Europe, Bulgaria and Chechnya to see where we are. The response was great, and I remember doing a string of radio, print and TV appearances.
I quickly seized the opportunity to talk openly about me being gay as it would bring even more visibility and that was my coming out process. Since then, it’s been much easier to talk about things openly because I have nothing to hide. There was a funny moment where I was doing a big TV interview and my mum said politely “When you go on this show, maybe try being a little more discreet because your grandma may see it, and I don’t want other people bringing it up to her negatively” and then when I went to do the interview, all the monitors in the studio had big rainbow flags on them as the background for the interview…
You have incredible talent and creative energy, and you also have a degree in Human Rights. Why did you decide to study?
After completing WAITING FOR COLOR, I was craving to focus more on socially engaged art, but I felt like I lacked the understanding of where art and activism really fit in the grand scheme of fighting for human rights. I didn’t have the proper understanding of how law and international cooperation really come together to defend human rights. Through WAITING FOR COLOR I met with Rémy Bonny, who is an amazing activist focusing on LGBTQ+ rights within Eastern Europe, and I saw he had just graduated from the Global Campus of Human Rights. He encouraged me to apply and it led to an incredible experience for me. Right now, I am still focused on art and media, but I have a much deeper understanding of how my work informs the rest of the human rights ecosystem. To put it out into the universe, I am waiting on something excited related to human rights and youth advocacy…
Recently you worked with Rita Ora on her new EP project. How did this happen?
The video for Rita Ora’s new EP and mini-film Bang was shot in Bulgaria because of our unique Soviet-era architecture and the overall badass vibe. Her team wanted to go for a really raw and authentic aesthetic, and that’s why Bulgaria won over other options. When shooting in Bulgaria, the team is usually a mix of international and local crew, and I got the opportunity to assist choreographer Becky Hicks as the assistant-choreographer on the project. All the dancers and models in the video are also Bulgarian! The most fun part of the process was being the stand-in for Rita for the camera blocking and living my Rita Ora fantasy!
Now you are editor in chief of Out.bg - a popular LGBT+ blog. What kind of work do you do with Out.bg and how important do you think these types of websites are to Queer communities?
Out.bg is a next-generation media for Bulgaria. We cover news and politics with an advocacy stance, shining light on the issues and challenges that queer Bulgarians face. We celebrate the latest in culture, wellness, identity, politics and entertainment through the lens of the LGBTQ+ community, which hasn’t been done before in our country.
Still most of the media coverage is overwhelmingly negative and stereotypical, so we are working hard to change the conversations and enter mainstream media with a bang. We give a platform to emerging writers and artists and one of the best parts of our work is the conversations we have with activists and other leaders in our movement for equality in our #OutOriginals / #OutInterview series.
One interesting piece we did was about the homophobic Hungarian MEP József Szájer who was caught at a gay sex party in Brussels. Our take on it was sympathetic and talked about shame and hypocrisy and how that trickles down into homophobic legislation rather than pointing a finger towards him and making him an example. Even in the most shocking of circumstances, as a media, we look for humanity and empathy, which is something the Bulgarian audience really needs.
Brussels based activist Remy Bonny included you in the list of ‘Top 10 LGBTI individuals of 2019’. Would you consider yourself an activist?
I consider myself an artist who uses his platform and inspiration to promote acceptance and social responsibility. Activism is very daunting work, and I consider the people who are on the frontlines, risking their bodies, their privacy and their well-being true activists. I have incredible respect for everyone who is working in countries and situations where being queer is much more dangerous, and I don’t think it’s fair to label myself as an activist as someone whose impact is primarily through arts and traditional & social media.
You have worked, lived and traveled the world, but now you are back to Sofia. Was it difficult to return to Bulgaria after living so much of your life in different places?
Yes, and to be honest, it still doesn’t feel definite. Sofia is rapidly evolving but it does feel small to me sometimes. Right now I am working on some bigger projects, and I would love to be everywhere at the same time. Working in Bulgaria can be tiring as you are often the one pushing everything forward, and I do miss the sense of competition and ambition that New York brought out in me. Hopefully Sofia will catch up to speed, at least in my mind!
Have you noticed any change in Bulgarian society towards LGBT+ issues from when you were in school, to now?
The young generation is very queer, very activist and aware. With the rise of Instagram and TikTok, young people are discovering much earlier on that they can be their unapologetic selves and it’s not their parents or peers that get to dictate how they’re going to live their lives. I think this is incredible and something that will only create more effective change in the next decades to come.
Something really amazing that we do with Single Step Foundation every year is CampOUT, an educational summer camp for LGBTQ+ youth where they meet professional mentors in photography, music, dance, film and visual arts, who support their first professional steps! It’s an incredible opportunity and we are just beginning to see the first openly queer artists take the stage with confidence.
For the month of March, ‘The New East is Queer’ had a focus on Bulgaria. We have discovered a lot of Queer talent in Bulgaria. As a representative for the community, what would you say to the world?
Support queer art and try to see beyond the cliché of “parading our sexuality”. Being openly queer is about taking away the stigma so that we get to focus on being our authentic selves. So often, queer artists are forced to bring their sexuality to the forefront of their identity not by choice but because of the incredible oppression we feel. When you see a queer person being themselves, remember it’s not about you and your comfort.
What’s next for you? What would you like to do in the near future, and in the distant future?
I have a huge list of crazy goals that I like to update every year! I’d like to publish my first book, to empower the dance community in Bulgaria, to direct a Broadway show, to help pass marriage equality in Bulgaria, to shoot a feature film and to choreograph for the Paris Opera Ballet.