With a composed, sweet, and measured voice, the woman behind the spastic, exaggerated femme persona known as Cherdonna Shinatra describes her upcoming projects. The tone of the conversation is markedly different compared to the character’s at-times cartoonish physicality, but the woman behind Cherdonna, Seattle’s Jody Kuehner, has no problem with the concept of dichotomy.
In a YouTube video published May 14, 2013, Kuehner performs on stage in a club as Cherdonna. She’s outfitted in heels, wearing a 70’s top with long sleeves that’s also a short dress and, of course, has Cherdonna’s signature full blown-out giant blond bouffant. Cherdonna’s makeup is extreme: big blue hues over her eyes, bright red lipstick and a white foundation. Cherdonna is dancing with leg and limb like one of those toys that, when you push the bottom square pedestal, goes limp and when you let go of the pedestal it sturdies right up. Cherdonna is dancing to a Beyoncé song and is getting a loud round of applause from people who might as well be holding out dollar bills.
While all of this is visually stimulating, the real crux of the performance is Kuehner’s play in the gray area between sex and natural physicality. In one moment Cherdonna is on her hands and knees, popping her booty in the air like a carnal mating ritual. Yet in another, she’s strutting like a burlesque clown waving her finger comedically as if to say, “No, no, boys and girls!”
“Being a woman in the world and feeling a big struggle between experiencing my sexuality and feeling my whole self while also being hyper-sexualized – that’s definitely what Cherdonna is about,” says Kuehner. “I’m a queer person – I date queer people – and I have times when I want to be noticed. But I want people to notice me in a way that I feel safe and comfortable.”
As many artists have found, the stage can provide that level of comfort. It’s a place where Kuehner can lift her shirt, show her silky underwear, and get the response that’s appropriate: cheers. This is not something she, or really any woman, can do safely in public day-to-day. “There’s silly stuff, too,” Kuehner says. “I take a lot of yoga and when the men take their shirts off in yoga it really bothers me. I’m like, I don’t get to do that so you don’t get to do that!”
The Beyoncé performance, in all of its contortive, cat walking, pseudo striptease glory, lasts only about three minutes. It feels exhaustive at times despite its immense attention grab. For Kuehner, though, the longer and more elaborative the performance the better it can feel on stage. “I think what happens with longer performances is there can be more of a shift with how people watch you,” says Kuehner, who trained as a modern dancer at the University of South Florida before moving to Seattle. “There can be more room to go through a multitude of emotional states.”
Often those emotional states are complex and nuanced.
“In contemporary dance we’re using our bodies,” Kuehner, a teacher at Seattle’ Velocity Dance Center, says. “And we’re taught explicitly that it’s not sexual, that moving my body doesn’t have to be sexual all the time. Yet we’re sexual beings.”
Kuehner’s persona works in this difficult-to-navigate arena. The character comports herself gleefully but also manically. She uses heightened aesthetics to grab attention while also showing how mixed up humans can be when considering presentation, attraction, and desire. “I mean, how crappy is it that we’ve built ourselves this society where we make decisions based on how people look on the outside,” she laments. “That’s what I’m playing with all the time with Cherdonna. Expectations and what the audience thinks I’m going to do when I’m dressed up like this.”
The artistic social experiment that is the Cherdonna provides Kuehner a type of catharsis to help ease the tension of being a woman with wants and needs in an often dangerous, hyper-sexed culture. It’s become essential for the performer, who created the persona from scratch, building from lip-gloss to the current hair sprayed stage behemoth.
“I’m pretty extroverted as Jody,” Kuehner says. “But I can also be shy in social situations. But when I’m Cherdonna, I really don’t care. I really don’t. It’s so exciting and I feel like everybody should do this sort of work. For most people, our human nature has us walking around all day saying, ‘Life is hard.’ Cherdonna let’s me let go of all that.”
You can now see Cherdonna in two distinct projects this season:
Cherdonna’s Doll House at the Washington Ensemble Theater (April 28-May 15): a collaboration between Cherdonna and the Washington Ensemble Theater around the Henrik Ibsen play, A Doll’s House.
Kuehner says, “That play is extremely classic but it’s also known to be one of the first feminist plays. We’ll start a little more abstract – Cherdonna welcomes the audience, is excited everybody is here. She is active from the get-go and the actors are into it, but then Cherdonna gets a little too involved and eventually disrupts it.”
Clock That Construct at The Henry Gallery (May 18-21): the culmination of Kuehner’s residency at the gallery.
Kuehner says, “It’s part installation and part live performance.”