Storyteller Gina Cornejo strives to draw sweat, from herself and her audience

Oct 19, 2021

Gina Cornejo inside the Asheville contemporary arts center Revolve, where she's in residency through October.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Whether on stage or on the page, Gina Cornejo has always brought a focus and fluidity to her identity. For now, she uses the pronouns she/her and they/them. 

“This is me in my own transition of, not only in this time of coming into my own voice within my work, but coming to my own very gentle identifying as queer, identifying as a queer female, even Latina,” Cornejo said. “I’m very much coming to terms with all these identifiers. I just want to keep it open and available.”

Cornejo’s mother was a dancer, her father a mariachi singer. Cornejo schooled as a dancer and found her creative voice through Teatro Luna, a Chicago theatrical collective of Latina women. Her experiences writing for that company set her on her current path as an autobiographical storyteller.

“We recognized this commonality between each other as Latinas, in whatever way Latina presented itself, and ran with it,” she said of her time with Teatro Luna.

“We all have similar stories of, like, ‘Tell me about the first time you had sex, tell me about the last time you talked to your mother, what’s the relationship like with your father now as opposed to when you were five?’” she recalled. “For all of us, we recognized the collective healing, and we knew if we were being healed and we put this on stage, we’re going to change the audience.”

Cornejo is in residency through October at the Asheville contemporary arts center Revolve. She’s giving a series of solo story performances and screening a filmed collaboration with the dancers Vanessa Owen and Gavin Stewart. Cornejo said the connecting thread through these stories is isolation.

“The theme for this is that purity and the erosion of the sweetness we used to seek in our relationships of love, of respect, of trust, of freedom,” she said.

Early in her professional life, Cornejo envisioned a career on stage and screen. Even then, she said she often auditioned by performing passages of her own stories. She blanched at many of the commercial roles offered to her.

“The things I was getting called for were prostitute No.2, maid, gangster girlfriend, I’m like, ‘OK, I apologize—question mark?’” she said with a laugh. “So (I was) coming from that state of apology, instead of embracing more of just of who I am.”  

Cornejo first moved to Asheville after her divorce in 2017, then went back to Chicago for an opportunity that vanished with the pandemic. She returned to Asheville in 2020 and soon  reached out to Owen and Stewart about collaborating. Together, they produced a video around Cornejo’s poem “Atmosphere.”

The video is set in a house. Owen and Stewart set their movement in different rooms while Cornejo, seated, recites her verse. Owen said she and Stewart saw movement in Cornejo’s writing.

“She comes from a movement background, so it’s very rhythmic,” Owen said. “There’s breath and space in it. There’s a lot of dynamic in it. It was pretty easy for us to actually imagine movement to it immediately.”

Through this residency, after each night’s screening, Cornejo will stand alone on stage to tell her stories for the first time. The next phase of Cornejo’s collaboration with Stewart/Owen Dance happens in January, when they develop new work at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

“I simultaneously adore and am terrified of my own voice,” she said. “I’m back to the initial roots of why I love to put a pen to paper and share in a way that makes me sweat, so I hope it will make other people sweat and be engaged.”