Always Looking: An Interview with Gina Bonati

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I first met Gina Bonati in the summer of 2014 in New York. I visited her in her longtime home of the East Village. I was in the city for several dance commitments, and Gina was a dancer. We connected instantly and have since kept in touch.

She recently visited me on my family’s hundred-year-old fruit farm before she headed off to Oakland California to begin her second MFA from Mills College (this time, in experimental vocal music). A Juilliard graduate who has lived in New York for over thirty years, Bonati is an inspiration for both her incredible artistic talents and her ability to persevere. It was very kind of her to allow me to interview her over several evenings.

When was the first time you danced?

All children dance so when I was a girl I danced, like all children do. But there is a particular memory I have, when I realized its importance to me.

When I turned nine, my parents — who had been separated — reunited. My father was playing in the pit at Harrah’s, in Tahoe. He played alto sax and surprised me with a visit to where he worked. I had been in a foster home for a year, and I knew it was my birthday, but I didn’t connect it to any kind of reward, so this birthday really sticks out to me for that reason, too.

He was in the pit and started to riff with the orchestra and play an improvised happy birthday. I immediately recognized it and at the same moment, this bunny was rounding the corner with a birthday cake all in flames. “Look mom,” I said, “It’s somebody’s birthday.” And then it clicked: “It’s MY birthday!

It was a German chocolate cake, which then was my favorite cake in the world forever. Before the show started, I got to go behind stage. The backstage just totally seduced me. Each floor had showgirls and they had huge headdresses filled with rhinestones and color. To me, a life of backstage meant all of this trapped beauty, encased in cement in glass — not like nature.

And then the show started and everyone was nice to me. And the show was one of these cornball shows with show dancers but the thing about this one had this modern dance company doing this narrative drama and there were two young people who were struggling to come apart and come together. I remember the pull and magnetic nature of that. It was dramatic, not just showy, or sexy like what the showgirls did.

And later when we got home my brother and I made a whole dance theatre piece in my parents’ room and I just thought it was really special. I don’t remember saying, that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up. But years later, that’s exactly what I did.

As a young child in San Francisco, I started dancing in the park with the African dancers and doing street theatre and performance. And that kept building. And in high school I was in the dance club and then I got scholarships. It was the Carter Administration and there was more money for inner city kids to be given opportunities so about eight of us from high schools all over the place received free ballet and modern class. The studio was right in the Mission where I lived, so it was easy to get to.

gina-untitlesI was supposed to go to Mills College for dance when I was seventeen. I was accepted and given scholastic awards and talent awards, however, my mother didn’t pay the $100 deposit for me to be enrolled, so I lost all of my scholarships. At that time, my mom had gotten involved with Synanon, this ridiculous cult. My mother was trouble, and my brother and I became a part of Synanon, too.

When I turned eighteen, the cult just turned into the Devil’s playground. The cult was insisting on things from me and harassing me. They shaved my head, they forced me to do hard labor, I was being told I didn’t deserve nice things and I believed it. I think having my head shaved caused me to go into shock. My dance teacher couldn’t handle my shaved head and threw me out the school. And then it got worse and worse and worse.

I got sent to the middle of nowhere California, then I had a boyfriend in the cult and I forgot all about dancing. And every once and awhile I would dance for someone’s wedding or teach the kids ballet but the head cult members kept telling me I was obligated to be valuable and dance wasn’t valuable. I started to believe that dancing was for when I was young and not a career. It was bad like this for four and a half years.

What changed everything for me was the Jonestown massacre, which was a relative cult of Synanon. I was about twenty or twenty-one when that happened. At the time, Chuck Dietrich, the founder of Synanon, was spewing similar rhetoric. It was so scary and depressing but it made me realize I was in danger. Also by this time, I had gotten very ill. I was in and out of the hospital. I weighed eighty-five pounds I could not keep weight on. I had no appetite and there was nothing to eat anyway. I was so ill, Synanon left me alone for a period of time because any labor I tried to do would land me back in the hospital.

By this time they had moved me to one of their sites in upstate New York. My cousin Tia, who lived in NYC, visited me. I remember it being such an amazing thing that she made the drive to Kingston, where I was living. It allowed me to start recovering memory. I started doing tiny amounts of yoga. I was determined it was going to work and then it started working. I convinced Synanon to give me a car and I would use it to go take an adult ballet bar class. I kept doing it and I got a little stronger and I put on weight, and I could walk around again. And once I was able to work more, they sent me back to California.

At the time I had a Synanon marriage with a boy I had grown up with. About two years into our marriage, the founder declared that all marriages were invalid. It was devastating. The leader made everyone make lists of whom the other marriage partner could be remarried to. The man I got matched with, he was a very angry person, and he hurt me physically. I was terribly unhappy he didn’t know what to do. One night he grabbed me and I had a welt across my neck. This served as public acknowledgement that things weren’t going well, so they sent us both as a couple so we could be watched by the elders.

One day he threatened me and I decided I wanted to divorce him — a Synanon divorce. Inevitably, we separated. Breaking up with my husband, which was a symbol for independence, [the elders] weren’t happy with. These awful men– they made me have a verbal haircut, where they get in your face and shatter you and make you feel awful. They did that quite a bit. But they hadn’t realized I had gotten a lot better. Being physically ill gave me time to rest. I soon got in touch with my old dance teacher and she was happy as hell I was back. Pretty soon they caught on and decided I needed to be put back in their control.

I got called into a meeting with the facility manager in a glass bowl office. I go to talk to him and outside his office is a broken chair made completely out of barn wood. I go into his office and I say, “What’s with that chair?” He’s throwing it away and says I can have it. He starts telling me he’s been told by higher-ups that I’m going to move back upstate to Marin County to do a new job. And I say, “I think I’m okay where I am, thank you.” And he says, “I knew this wasn’t going to go well.” I say, “I know, but I’m not going to say yes to this.”

I say, “Is it okay if I still keep the chair?” He says yes.

I walk out and take the chair. I walk down the hall from one part of the building, and as I’m leaving, he gets on the phone to tell his bosses. This disgusting human being, Sydney, who I worked for, sent his secretary to bring me back in so he could talk to me. I brought the chair in with me. I go into the office and I start to sit down, and he stands up behind his desk and starts bellowing at me. I go to stand up and he says, “Sit the fuck down when I’m talking to you.” I started to sit down, but then I stood up again.

He kept yelling at me but I had my chair and I held it close to my body. And I said, “Sydney, you are never, ever, ever again speaking to me this way.” And I walked down the hall and left.

My acting teacher from high school came and got me on October 31, 1979 … this after various punishments that included having to sleep in weird places, like on benches. I very quickly got my journals into boxes and left late on Halloween night and moved into his teenage daughter’s walk-in closet for about two weeks. I was so scared of everything. I was undernourished and I had a lot of health problems, a lot of nervous system damage.

That’s when I met Aaron Osborne. I started taking class with him every day.

I was auditioning for dance companies in San Francisco but I had lost a lot of time, strength, technique, and awareness; I was flailing around. I decided I had been deprived of college and so I started applying for different schools. I applied and Juilliard was willing to look at me, so I got on one of those weird planes, a courier where you get to ride for free if you deliver papers. I auditioned and got accepted right away.

What was being a student at Juilliard like for you?

It was amazing and I was starving to death. I didn’t own a coat, I didn’t have shoes; I was from San Francisco!

At Juilliard I did the usual things one does at Juilliard, ballet, Paul Taylor rep, etc. But when I graduated, I could not get a job dancing in a company. In need of money, I decided to take a job as a go-go dancer. Dancing at the Baby Doll Lounge in Tribeca was my first professional dancing job.

At first I was still taking dance classes, but eventually, I stopped. There was something about working at the Baby Doll that made everything else go away. I was living this edgy life of being a sex symbol. I had never been that. The first time I ever go-go danced I arrived in shorts and a T-shirt. I wasn’t doing what I should be doing so I had a lot of shame. I wasn’t comfortable with making money so I was giving it away. I was emotionally fried, though I wasn’t using drugs or anything. I had never been beautiful and I was really enjoying it. I was enjoying being a stark raving beauty. I started modeling, and acting.

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Eventually, I quit the Baby Doll. It just was untenable after a while and I had to get back to my work. That’s when I had this dream. In my dream I had my long brown hair and I was dancing. I decided I wasn’t going to be a celebrity; I was going to be a dancer and go back to ballet class.

I was accepted into Jane Comfort’s company, and I was the poster girl for her season, which made a couple of her company members very jealous. I was very unhappy and eventually, I had to resign. I was being bullied terribly.

Chris Komar and I had a good connection and I asked him if I could take a company class with Merce. He said yes, and soon after, I was on scholarship and learning Merce’s rep alongside company members. But I had to find a way to make a living. I started acting again but this time, I was acting in the theatre, which didn’t need me to have a nose job, blonde hair, or any of the rest of it. And then I moved into my current place.

Eventually, I started making my own work. I made a piece in ’87 in a beautiful church. The piece had a lot of go-go dancing imagery in it and a man drawing the whole time; it was a group piece. I talked some people from Billy’s Topless into being in it. It was called “Untitles” and had lots of angst and language.

Then I made this amazing solo on my roof, “Bird #1.” I started making pieces titled Bird #1, #2, #3 … and it was the beginning of me working with paper. I make these things with huge pieces of paper and allow it to manipulate me or me to manipulate it. The impetus for this work is that for a long time, I was an artist’s model, and I was hearing paper all the time.

image-1As a model you’re in the middle of this thing with all this sound. These ocean sounds of charcoal on paper amplified are really beautiful, not to mention the experience visually becoming form and maintaining its flatness simultaneously that somehow with just burnt wood on more wood, you end up with something remarkable. It’s repetition, coordination, and all those things, and so it’s magical. To be a dancer, and an actress, and a poet inside of it is amazing.

I showed something at Merce on Bethune Street called “Emergence Sea” about somebody building a house out of garbage bags, supported with a score that was all language and me dancing. Then I made another piece called “The Sea Without” about the ocean, my cat, and my brother, all living underneath the ocean.

Why use paper, besides the obvious connection to your work as an artist’s model?

I love the sensuality of paper and I’ve always been a hider; I love the experience of disappearing. I’m not terribly comfortable being seen for long bits of time, so being on stage with these massive bits of paper allows me to play with being seen and disappearing. I also love the dynamic of sound and I play with that a lot. You know, if I hold still, the silence reverberates, and I can play and hold while the sound continues.

I think there are other people who are visual artists that make performance with paper but I’m actually making the paper experience a kind of movement that is more like dance. The paper has what dance has in music, and it’s movement.

I’m not interested in a steady thing; I like the natural, the way an ocean is music, the way a storm is music, that kind of music, the sound of something that allows you to kind of follow a pattern before it changes and say, oh! now it’s this instead.

It’s not chance, it’s not circumstance; it’s indeterminacy. That’s what Merce used to say.

What’s next?

I have an MFA in dance from Mills to add to my undergraduate from Juilliard in dance, and I’m in love with ballet. I do a lot of experimental theatre, experimental voice, and improvisational music. This to me says OPERA!

I keep saying I’m making dance operas or installation operas. That’s what I’ll be doing these next few years while I earn my MFA in music with an improvisational voice emphasis: making sketches for the stage. I’ll be presenting them over the next couple of years in California and NYC.

What themes or ideas do you keep returning to in your artwork?

I’m curious about the difference between art forms — poetry, opera, dance, etc. I’m also curious about the human body, its gesture and expressions: the arm reaches out and something happens. Kenneth King used to say that when you do a port de bra, the edge of your pinky nail makes a line and it continues out of the room and into the sky, and finally, it touches the edge of a star.

imagesThere’s a problem with being a dancer in society, and I love that problem. I love problems. I find ballet seems to be removed from the grit of life, however, that dancer also has to make a living, which is a gritty thing. The go-go dancer and the ballerina: that’s the same dancer.

Some people don’t think of it as dilemma. But without a problem, there is no good art. If you don’t have a problem, you have to put yourself in a predicament. I am always looking for the problem.

Not solving it, just finding it?

I think that what I’m doing is cornering myself and then working inside of the predicament. I’m not trying to resolve a question; I’m trying to find the worst part of it. I’m looking for all of the crevices and edges of what it is and then looking for an image that can be revealed out of it. The essence of it: image and action. If I have the answer, well that is propaganda and I’m not interested in that. There is no answer, there are just a lot problems. If you think you’ve found the answer, all you’ve done is paint a lot of white over the problem.

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