Cherdonna Shinatra Takes a Leap

Photo by Lou Daprile

As the lights went up on Clock That Mug or Dusted, Cherdonna Shinatra made a characteristically charismatic entrance, poking her flamboyant head out from behind a few set pieces with an endearing confession: “I’m just peeking!” she whisper-squealed to peals of laughter, only to turn and reveal herself more fully, wearing a beige ’70s-style jumpsuit cut to leave one butt cheek and one boob hanging in the breeze.

From there, Cherdonna began a lengthy, highly satisfying physical comedy gag involving a peanut butter and banana sandwich. (Her sense of timing is perfection.) But as the new hour-long work progressed, it relied less and less on Cherdonna’s usual brand of silly-but-poignant dragishness, driving into the absurdity of clowning and feminist performance art. Bits gave way to improvisations, and narrative cohesion disintegrated into an abstract meditation on kindness.

Cherdonna is the longtime on-stage alter ego of choreographer/performer Jody Kuehner—and no stranger to bizarre existentialism and knotty presentations of gender as mechanisms for exploring the human condition. In Dusted, Kuehner pushes the boundaries of her movement-based performance art to their outer limits, discomfort be damned. It’s as if she’s searching for the edges of possibility asking herself and her audience, where do we go from here? The show’s nonlinear structure is both a frustrating and strangely transcendent experience, like being flung out of the universe of recognizable convention.

And speaking of flinging: After a few distinct bits at the start of the show (including one about Cherdonna’s wildly exhaustive ballet background—she’s “done them all” bajillions of times), she disappears for a moment before hurling a sizable array of objects onto the stage: fake severed limbs, Styrofoam wig heads, a cantaloupe…and quite a few squeeze bottles of paint.

Then Cherdonna’s id takes over—and gone are the tranquil whites, beiges and ivories presented in the initial set and costuming. As if in a joyous, compulsive fever dream, she employs her props—shooting and pouring paint everywhere, getting donuts stuck in her hair, ricocheting through space. In the process, Cherdonna deconstructs her outer visage: wig cut, one eye wiped of its color and lashes, immaculate jumpsuit soaked and smeared with color. The character herself is a convention for unraveling.

Throughout this messy sequence—set to a soundtrack of 1970s disco ballads—Cherdonna wrings every last drop of expression from each gesture, keeping the audience rapt to her performance, despite its lack of discernable narrative. Though there’s little, if any, “dance” in this show, Cherdonna is master of movement, her every extension filled with precise intention.

When she’s thoroughly exhausted herself, she turns to a giant plush doll hanging from the ceiling, attempting to stack a pair of poufs in order to pull it down. (Eventually an audience member helps her out; there’s considerable audience interaction in this piece, though none of it has the painful quality that makes you want to hide under your seat.) She then dances a sort of pas de deux with the floppy, 10-foot-tall doll, posing and bending it this way and that, all the while chanting with increasing urgency, “I’m not trying to be mean,” until the phrase, too, dissolves, sounding occasionally like, “I’m not trying to be me.”

Humans have a way of hurting one another inadvertently. In seeking joy and companionship, we make a mess of many things. In asserting our identities, we set up impossible systems of endless expectations. With Clock That Mug or Dusted, Cherdonna bravely provides us with a knowing relief—an imperfect, honest, funny trip to the unknown.

Clock That Mug or Dusted runs through June 12 at Velocity Dance Center, which also commissioned and produced the piece as part of its Made in Seattle program.