“Do you think this is easy for me? DO YOU?” Self-described dancer and bio drag queen Cherdonna Shinatra flings her question at the audience, chin thrust forward, facial features exaggerated by glamorous, clownish sparkly makeup. A fiery orange wig is swept into a pointy coif, but despite everything above her shoulders Cherdonna’s appearance belies the common drag queen persona: she’s dressed in a flesh-colored bodysuit, barefoot, and at times extremely vulnerable. Her movements vacillate between spasmodic, balletic, and theatrical; she rolls her spine and throws her shoulders and head back as if trying to birth a loud yell, but the only thing coming out of her red painted mouth are sighs that sound like “Mom, mom, mom…” Minus some random titters from the audience, the theater seems to hold its breath in anticipation—and maybe a touch of loving concern.
Cherdonna Shinatra is the performance character of Seattle dancer/choreographer Jody Kuehner, whose first solo work, Worth My Salt, opened this weekend at Velocity Dance Center. Cherdonna isn’t new to Seattle stages; as part of the duo The Cherdonna and Lou Show, she performed for five years with artistic partner Lou Henry Hoover (Ricki Mason) and gained popularity within contemporary dance circles and the cabaret scene. With Worth My Salt, Kuehner takes Cherdonna into new territory and explores some darker corners of artistic and gender identity, which takes some getting used to for audiences expecting to see a drag show: apart from the loud guffaws and giggles, Friday night’s audience was mostly silent as the deeply personal and emotional nature of Cherdonna’s movements overrode the clownish aspects of her appearance. Her choreography switched between paces and moods at the drop of a hat, but at each turn captured that bizarre balance of power and vulnerability that is femininity. For example: she commanded the troop of her three “muses” (dancers Jim Kent, David Wolbrecht, and Randy Phillips) in a series of stage directions and cheers “Hey girl HEY!” and then spooned their prostrate bodies to the sounds of a thunderstorm. Cherdonna’s movements, spoken words, and facial expressions explored how feminine physical beauty, sex appeal, self-doubt, self-worth, and self-actualization can all contribute to and combat gender inequality.
Worth My Salt is full of emotion, but Cherdonna’s artistic skill, physical beauty, and dark, smart humor make those heavy themes all the more powerful. Delicately gliding across the stage in a touching and technically flawless rendition of the ballet variation, The Dying Swan, Cherdonna’s face was serious but the audience was cracking up: instead of the traditional Swan Lake white feathered tutu, her body was covered in a lime-green macramé owl, its gigantic eyes over her nipples and fuzzy green beak over her crotch. At the end of the dance, she got up and proclaimed, “I’m not going to die. I’m just not!”
Cherdonna Shinatra’s Worth My Salt continues October 24-26, 2014 at Velocity Dance Center. All shows are sold out except the Friday 10 PM show. More information and tickets available here.