In this occasional feature, we shine a spotlight on someone in the arts and culture world. Seattle-based dancer Jody Kuehner is best known for her alter ego/drag persona, Cherdonna Shinatra, who expertly balances comedy and tragedy while making sharp points about gender and sexuality. Her newest creation, at Frye Art Museum, is titled "DITCH."
There is nothing quite like strolling into an art installation birthed from the mind of Jody Kuehner. Kuehner is a Seattle-based multifaceted queer artist, comedian, clown, dancer and queen. She is best known for her alter ego/drag persona, Cherdonna Shinatra, a self-described “aggressively sweet” entertainer who expertly balances comedy and tragedy while making sharp points about gender and sexuality. In her performances, she flips from hilarious facial expressions to subversive, politically sharp critiques of the patriarchy through dance, glitter and lip syncing.
Kuehner/Cherdonna’s newest creation is an immersive art installation and dance performance titled “DITCH.” Kuehner and her dance company, DONNA, perform “DITCH” live every day of the week (except Mondays) inside of the installation at the Frye Art Museum. With “DITCH,” Cherdonna Shinatra and DONNA are aiming to explore existential dread, the role of the artist in this social moment, and what it looks like to build a queer matriarchal space.
In “DITCH,” Cherdonna and DONNA command the room with both an intentionally chaotic levity and spooky existential ache — a cryptic, queer Disneyland-like experience. The dancers are clad in multipatterned ’80s-inspired exercise gear and surrounded by a plush, brightly-colored space. Atmospheric layers of sound — a combination of baby coos, the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack and carnival music — come from the walls.
A giant naked doll of a woman, MomDonna, is propped against the walls of the performance space, her legs spreading along two sides of the room. She is made of a soft crushed velvet, headless, and reaches from the floor to the ceiling. At one point, DONNA emerges from the two large doors in the middle of her legs, representing her vagina. Audience members, sitting on benches upon a multicolored, checkered floor, surround the rest of the space across from MomDonna.
The visually engaging performance shifts among dance, physical comedy and audience interaction. In some moments, Cherdonna hits herself in the head with a plastic toy mallet, and in others, DONNA and Cherdonna replicate Cher- and Raquel Welch-inspired dance routines. In another instance, Cherdonna is pushed around the room by audience members on a small children’s bicycle decorated to match the brightly colored clown outfit she is wearing.
We caught up with Kuehner at a cafe in Seattle. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
Can you describe “DITCH” to me in your own words? And what it means to you?
So many things. The piece originally started to be another work about identity, really, my own identity, my dancers’ identity. Everybody in my cast is queer with variations of how they express themselves through their gender. A lot of my works [have] been about that, so it got to a point where I was like, who cares about identity when the world is (expletive)? Does art (expletive) matter? What is needed right now? Part of me has to believe that yes, maybe somebody will get something [out of “DITCH”], but I don’t know what else I would do in the world either. My skill set feels like it is here. I want to bring it back to just being in my body and going back to my roots.
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Is there a specific example of that in the performance — of aligning with your exploration of existential dread?
I think it is just sort of the overall trajectory, I don’t think it is anything in particular. We have a [story from] a friend in the audience who was there. A kid was next to her and, during the show, the kid said to the adult they were with: “Is this supposed to be happy or sad?” And I was like “exactly!” I want to ride that line any moment. There are these classic ideas that I love — of comedy and tragedy and how close they are.
You mention in the description of your show that you are dedicated to carving out space for queer femmes. Why is that important to you?
Because I am one. It is something that I am still learning about within myself. I think there is something inherently in me too that does want space. In the development of the piece, I asked: What if we just change the whole [original space] and make it totally different? What if I can be in control of what I want it to look like and what I want people to step into?
Badass! I love that you have created this unapologetically queer space.
One of my favorite things about the room [at the Frye] is that we made it super plushy and soft, but nobody can touch anything. It is very much in the same respect of: I am going to wear this short skirt but that doesn’t mean you get to touch me or think I’m asking for it. I love that the space also reflects that. It may look like you can touch it, but you can’t. There is no consent to touch the space and that is delightful to me.
There is also MomDonna. We see her as a ruin. She’s been there, done that. She’s seen thousands of years of humans trying to make it work over and over and is the all-knowing oracle in the space. She is literally a matriarchal figure that inhabits the space every day.
And you get to be birthed from her in the performance!
Yeah, exactly (laughs).
In numerous instances throughout the show, you directly engage with the audience. How have they responded? What has that been like for you?
In moments that I am directing [eye contact] to each individual, some people just look like they want to murder me. I’m like, I don’t know if you actually feel that, [or] if that’s just your watching face. If you do feel that way, why are you not just leaving? You don’t have to stay. With some people, literally the minute I lock eyes they just can’t handle — they look away. It’s wild. I’m like: Are you angry at the work? Are you angry at me? Do you hate this room? It’s free, you didn’t pay for a seat. … It is a pretty darker show for me. [And] I’m not speaking. I want[ed] to bring it back to not trying to solve problems or work on content via words.
What has the rehearsal process been like with DONNA, your dancers?
They are great. They question the process. They want to be in it with their fullest selves. I’m not going to be a choreographer that tortures my dancers, I think that’s part of the queer politics of the way I work with them. I tell my dancers: I really only want them to be in the room if they want to be there. We are creating this little community.
“Cherdonna Shinatra: DITCH,” through April 28 (performances 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, 5 p.m. Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays); Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free; 206-622-9250, fryemuseum.org