“In the land of Cherdonna all this stuff is going horribly, and she decides that it’s her job to make everybody happy…it’s a setup for failure.”
Cherdonna Shinatra received a 2017 DanceCrush award for her piece one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness. SeattleDances caught up with Jody Kuehner, the creative force behind Cherdonna, to hear about her upcoming show DITCH, the evolution of her performative work, and her thoughts on clowning and drag.
SeattleDances: Your new piece DITCH opens January at the Frye Art Museum. Can you tell us what’s going to happen? What was your inspiration for this project?
Jody Kuehner: DITCH is a full gallery installation with live performance. I’ve been working on this project with the Frye for the last three years. Where we started with this work was with identity—what parts of your identity you hide and what parts you can let flourish in different moments.
But then the immigration stuff started to happen in the middle of this process and it really threw me. It’s just so fucked up. It challenged me to ask, “What does it mean to be an artist?” and “Does this work really matter?” I wholeheartedly believe the arts do help and are needed. There’s sort of a butterfly effect—no, my work is not directly helping immigrants, but hopefully my work is helping people respond to the world in a more equitable way.
So the project took on a new goal. In the land of Cherdonna, all this stuff is going horribly, and she decides that it’s her job to make everybody happy. It’s not something that is attainable. Everybody’s needs are different and there’s no way anybody can really meet the needs of other people. So it’s a setup for failure.
SD: I’m curious about the clowning aspect of this work, how it’s about making people happy. A lot of clowning does involve failure and tragedy and pain in order to make people laugh. Does that bring a certain heaviness to the piece?
JK: That is the basis of a clown, really, this blend of comedy and tragedy. The work that I make, because it is embodied and via an emotional landscape, is part of that form. There’s lots of crossover.
I’m going less toward Bozo the clown and more toward European, Italian, old-timey clown. There’s some not desirable things about American clowning in the way it relates to minstrel shows and that history, so I’m trying to acknowledge that and not participate in that section of clowning.
All through that triptych of one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness I did a lot of talking. I used my voice a lot in all three of those works, so in this one I’m not going to use my voice at all. I’m moving towards silence, [focusing on] body and posturing and face, which is where I really started with Cherdonna. The dancers aren’t talking either, so it’s going to be a little bit different sonically.
SD: You mentioned that one of your priorities is carving out a space for femme and gender nonconforming and queer folks. Can you talk more about that goal, given that the piece is a little more political now?
JK: That still holds true. All of my dancers are queer and identify differently. [We’re working with] their identities racially and how that shifts who they are and their perspectives. Even though this piece will have tension, I want people to feel welcome and warm and that we’re inviting them into this space. I want people to want to walk in and feel like they walked into Candyland. Like their eyeballs are are like re-energized and it’s a different zone for people to be expressive.
SD: Chedonna Is not afraid of getting in people’s faces in general, but people aren’t going to be sitting in chairs like they would in a typical theater during DITCH. Can you talk more about how the face-to-face aspect has informed the piece and why it feels important right now?
JK: It has been really interesting in the rehearsal process because we’ve been practicing on each other. I do want to interact [with the audience]. We are thinking about consent. We’re going in assuming that the majority of people are going to be like, “Oh no, they’re coming towards me, I don’t know what to do.” Let’s see if we can have a genuine connection to somebody and also let them know, “We’re choosing you to interact with, but I’m going to make you feel safe. I’m not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to do.” I’m not playing any theater tricks here.
It goes both ways, too, because sometimes you have an audience member who wants to participate in an inappropriate way. That’s also a line to not cross because that [involves] the consent of the performer. If Cherdonna is really trying her hardest to make people feel happy and good, then those boundaries are really important. That fourth wall in the theater makes the audience feel safe. I want to figure out how to do that when you are in close proximity.
SD: Where does the name DITCH come from?
JK: The name started early in our process with our work around identity and queerness. We were researching lesbian separatist colonies, and there was this article about a lesbian separatist group from Seattle called the Van Dykes. That led into talking about those names: lesbian, and dyke, and another word for a lesbian was ditch—with dyke and ditch being sort of synonymous. Ditch really refers to the female genitalia. But also it carries into that moment we had when you want to ditch some things about your life, or about the world, or politically. And then there’s also the more obvious [meaning], being stuck in a ditch.
SD: You received a DanceCrush award in 2017 for one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness, in recognition of “ambitious vision and outstanding production.” How has your work —evolved since then?
JK: I think the major works are like kids, in that you learn so much with each one, and you love each one individually for their own hardships and joy. I’ve made so much work but I’m still evolving my process. The biggest thing now is working with this group of dancers. I have witnesses to my process, which is a little tortured, I won’t lie. I’m a little bit of a stickler for only putting things in the work that I really love. I want everything to be in line with the content, so there’s a lot of thinking and prodding.
Other than that, I am interested in different venues. With Kissing Like Babies [part III of one great, bright, brittle alltogetherness] it was outside, to Velocity black box-y feel, to On the Boards. With Cherdonna’s A Doll’s House it was working with a theatre company. And now being in a gallery is a new space, so I’m forever evolving in where I want the work to be seen.
SD: How do you see your work with this company of dancers continuing in the future?
JK: What really interests me about having this ensemble is it adds dimension to Cherdonna because they can shift their relationship—whether they’re seen as an extension of Cherdonna, or they are impartial to her, or they’re antagonistic. It changes the tone of the work. They’re such an amazing group. I feel inspired to keep working with them in a myriad of ways.
JK: You’re a dancer and a performance artist, but also a self-described bio drag queen. How do you see Cherdonna in relation to mainstream drag? What you think about drag’s increase in popularity, particularly that of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
It’s really amazing, and it also has its own complications. I’m a hundred percent excited about drag queens being able to make money and a living off of this art form.
But there’s not equity with all genders around drag and its popularity, and that sinks my soul a little bit. Drag Race is also amazing, and now it has reached lots of populations that would have had no access to that kind of expression. Hopefully the next steps can bring in more gender expression around that idea of drag. That’s my hope.
The drag race of RuPaul’s Drag Race that is taking over is a little intense, honestly. For example, I don’t necessarily think of a fringe festival as a place for a drag queen who can sell out a 2000-seat theater. I think it is up to the producer to leave these specific venues and festivals open to artists who have not been on TV and who need that kind of support. Because otherwise it’s sort of a wash of all these RuPaul girls everywhere. And the audiences are down for it, but it’s as if PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] would just do the Nutcracker all year long. Maybe it would sell out all year long, but it’s the presenter’s job to also educate the audience on what should be looked at and seen.
I’m not trying to say, “take it away.” I just want the other things also to be celebrated.
SD: What other performers do you admire right now? People that you think are doing really good work and maybe aren’t getting the spots in festivals or the recognition you think they should?
JK: Adrienne Truscott, out of New York, is somebody that I’m really inspired by. Also Erin Markey—Washington Ensemble Theatre is bringing her piece called SINGLET in the spring. Those two are badass women making bonkers work and I’m insanely impressed. In Seattle Dayna Hansen will always be doing work [that] is so intentional and committed. I think she’s got such a unique voice.
Cherdonna Shinatra’s DITCH runs January 28 through April 28, 2019 at the Frye Art Museum. More information HERE.