The opening-night audience at Worth My Salt didn't seem to know quite what to make of Cherdonna Shinatra's first full-length solo show. Some seemed to have come from the fan base of Cherdonna and Lou, the duo that broke up last year and was known as much for its appearance in cabaret and burlesque productions as for its shared dance background. (Cherdonna and Lou's creators—Jody Kuehner and Ricki Mason, respectively—each have a bachelor of fine arts in dance.) The Worth My Salt crowd seemed eager, even overeager, to laugh at a show that was full of psychological vaudeville but maintained a sense of poignancy and tragedy.
Worth My Salt packs its audience into a small-feeling room with a performance area covered in eyeball-scrambling wallpaper—a black or dark-blue background with a white floral print that runs along the floor and curves up to form a three-sided box with no sharp corners. (Corrie Befort of the dance company Salt Horse designed it.) Cherdonna, with her signature psychedelic makeup that makes her look like a drag queen who just head-butted a mime, walks into this hallucination and silently, methodically, scans the audience, looking each person in the eyes for a moment, her expression flat. From this moment, the show becomes an exercise in radical presence and connection, seeing and being seen. Despite the garish makeup and set, Worth My Salt does not feel like an illusion, a stage pretending to be someplace else. There is no disbelief to suspend.
She seems to be born (or to hatch from an invisible egg), struggling to say "mmm... mma... mmama!" and dances herself into awkward, overeager life with gestures that seem to borrow as much from explosive Jazzercise as from contemporary dance. She approaches someone in the front row and says, in her exaggerated, rounded, and elastic voice, "I just keep seeing you. It's nice to finally meet you." Shyly, she does one small, celebratory fist pump, then a double fist pump before slowly making her way upstage, turning as she goes but trying not to break eye contact, grinning when she finds the person is still there. To Cherdonna, in this moment, the ticket buyer in the front row is the celebrity. Or perhaps this is her way of announcing herself as Cherdonna alone—not Jody Kuehner who's danced with Pat Graney and Mark Haim, not half of Cherdonna and Lou.
The rest of Worth My Salt feels like an exploration of the gap between who one wants to be and who one actually is. (In her program notes for the show, Velocity Dance Center director Tonya Lockyer calls Cherdonna "a Buddhist clown.") She is visited by three men (Randy Phillips, Jim Kent, and David Wolbrecht) in short Greco-Roman tunics, each with a metal laurel wreath in his hair. Cherdonna and the men have a fraught relationship, now cuddling with each other, now barely able to stand each other.
At one point, the trio begins a fast, stuttering chant-and-prancing number that seems like a cheerleading routine from the deepest recesses of Cherdonna's limbic system: "Hey/hey girl/hey girl hey/careful get/hey/hey/you just comin' up at me/you hey hey/you stay away/you come hey/get get get get get get/hey/hey girl hey." And so on. It begins as catchy, with Cherdonna undulating madly along. But it just won't stop, and Cherdonna alternately loses her steam and her patience, then tries to get back into the rhythm—like the inner torture of compulsive, repetitive thinking. Later, the three men present her with a grotesque, caricatured portrait of herself, to which Cherdonna disappointedly says, "It's—it's just me." This builds into a revelation as the men carry and swing Cherdonna toward and away from individual audience members while she delightedly squeals, "I'm just gonna be ME! And you're just gonna be YOU!" It's a bizarre and occasionally discomfiting spectacle that feels both clownishly exaggerated and perversely vulnerable—much like Cherdonna herself.