I took my three year old son to see performance artist Cherdonna Shinatra's current show, "DITCH" at the Frye Art Museum last week. Perched on my lap on a bench in a windowless gallery covered with carnival colored fabric and tiles, my child sat rapt through the entire hour. His first dance performance outside of a studio. His first feminist performance art. His first Cherdonna--an artist whose ethics and artistry I've deeply admired for years--and it appears my tiny offspring is also quite the fan. Proud mama, right here.
Cherdonna Shinatra--the performance persona of Seattle artist Jody Keuhner--is a contemporary dance performer and choreographer who also describes her work as as "part bio drag queen." For the uninitiated, this means that Kuehner's Cherdonna is female, like Kuehner. She looks like a drag queen with large, expertly painted and caricatured feminine makeup and sometimes a huge blond wig perched atop her glittery head. "DITCH," an hour long performance shown six days a week for three months at the Frye (the free art museum!) is easy for a three year old to watch, and a little like church for his mother*.
"DITCH" is performed by Cherdonna and her dance company of six, DONNA. The choreography starts out light and airy with a 1980s Jazzercise feel, but gets dark and heavy as the piece progresses. For a kid, "DITCH" looks like a bunch of women in bright shorts playing around with a clown, all of them making exaggerated facial expressions and skipping and playing with hula hoops. For me, "DITCH" is a look inside the mind of every female-identifying person who stresses about being judged. Because she is. We all are.
The dancers move around the small-ish gallery, surrounded by audience members seated on a few low benches or on the floor. The walls are covered with giant swaths of brightly colored cushioned cloth, the corner of the gallery made up to look like a headless torso. Dancers emerge out of a vibrantly patterned vagina and skip around the floor, eyes wide with the faux innocence and delight of little girls at a country fair. As the piece progresses, the music changes from carnival-themed to something dark and foreboding and Cherdonna's movements become slow and pained. All the while, she smiles and makes occasional happy squeaks. Cherdonna, ever the perfect woman, never sacrifices her joyous facial expression even as her costume falls partway off or she loses a shoe in an effort to execute a warped version of a relevé. The other dancers begin to frown and shake their heads at Cherdonna, meanwhile still smiling and flirting with the audience. No one stops moving, and eventually they all disappear back into the pretty giant vagina. The colors on the walls are still loudly pink and blue and yellow and polka dotted, the lights still bright--everything is still pretty. That's the way we're supposed to be, right? Pretty and vivacious in the face of, well, anything?
This show is stunning. It is weird and loud and made me *feel* a little more than I'd planned on, but it's been stuck in my head for a week. Cherdonna's movements--breathy, slow, hunched over at times, startling and rambunctious at others--call out the shitty parts of living in a female/femme body while also making fun of societal norms that force these expectations. We're all done with it. I'm done with it. I want my son to see these expectations as weird relics instead of something he has to fight, but I'm still a bit lost on exactly how to teach him to think differently. Thank god we have Cherdonna to help us out.
DITCH runs at the Frye through April 28th. Tickets are free! Take your kids.
*This is a compliment, I like church.