by Sarah Toce
Walk around Capitol Hill and you won’t be able to escape the essence of Cherdonna Shinatra, dance artist and director by day, community-favorite drag queen by night. Her name, a mixture of two LGBTQ icons—Cher and Madonna, —precedes her, and she rises to the challenge with each step.
Cherdonna, whose real name is Jody Kuehner, takes pride in working and playing in the city she loves most: Seattle.
“I’ve always sung the praises of Seattle’s scene,” she said. “I moved here 14 years ago and said I’d leave when I didn’t have work. And I’m still here.”
Seattle offers Cherdonna an extensive outlet for creative expression.
“For me the focus is on the contemporary/modern dance community,” she said. “I haven’t experienced other cities (excluding New York City of course) that have professional-level dance classes on a daily basis, yoga/bodywork classes at any time of the day, and performances just about every weekend. It’s a special thing that our city can sustain this performance life. And it’s something I put my efforts into growing as the city changes. It’s something very unique and worth protecting.”
“[Seattle] is a place where a character like Cherdonna could be born and thrive and have the opportunity to grow and be challenged,” she saidadded. “It’s also the place I’ve made my home.”
When not performing, Cherdonna enjoys her favorite cup of joe and a plethora of trendy restaurants popping up all over Capitol Hill.
“[Seattle] is a place where a character like Cherdonna could be born and thrive and have the opportunity to grow and be challenged,” she said. “It’s also the place I’ve made my home.”
When prodded on what, if anything, she would change about her favorite city, she replied, “Everything from the huge social changes that need to happen to the minutiae of my grocery list…I can’t find a succinct way to answer.”
The star’s advice for up-and-comers is pickled with a myriad of focus as well.
“You can start as one thing and grow as you want,” she said. “Also: society teaches us success looks a particular way, but just like gender, success looks so different for everyone. As my mom says, ‘there’s enough mountaintops for everyone.’”
Success onstage requires sustenance offstage. One of Cherdonna’s favorite pre-stage rituals is compiling “a variety of snacks,” because “you never know what you’re gonna need that day to feel good about performing. Creature comforts.”
Speaking of the stage, Cherdonna has a new show in the works, opening January 26, 2019 at the Frye Art Museum, and running through April 28. It’s called DITCH, and it’s going to be epic.
“My company (DONNA)and I will be there daily Tuesday through Sunday for a whopping total of 80 performances over the three months,” she said. “It’s a full installation activated by live performance.”
DITCH will shine a light on Cherdonna’s varied expressions of femininity and complex personality, contrasting her charisma and constant need to please with the total fear and existential dread that ceaselessly plagues her.
What will happen when she can’t make everyone happy in the face of an oppressive existence? Will it be better to stick it out or end it all? What about when she lets herself cross over into a state of abandon and resignation?
Comprising a wildly colorful, multitextured environment of fabric-coated walls, checkerboard flooring, and audioscape, the installation will purposefully reject the traditionally “neutral” white cube aesthetic—what the artist construes as the patriarchal dimensions of the museum.
DITCH will instead be a matriarchal domain, presided over by the newly created figure MomDonna, a larger-than-life, disembodied sculpture in a state of ruin who births forth the performers on a daily basis.
This exhibition will “see Cherdonna and her dancers unapologetically inhabit their femme selves, to indulge conceptually, abstractly, and poetically to find retribution and visibility in this trash fire of a world,” the show description explains.
With great visibility comes an expansion of responsibility.
“I had a fan tell me after a performance once, ‘Today I learned that as a performer, I can do anything and that there are no rules,’” she said. “A different fan wrote me that Cherdonna helped them through a difficult time in their life. Those things make my heart sing.”
In addition to DITCH, Cherdonna could be seen in the shows Worth My Salt, Clock That Mug, and Kissing Like Babies, and alongside her performance friends Kitten N’ Lou in their stage productions.
“Lou was one of the first people I met in Seattle,” she said. “We’ve danced together, performed together, and supported each other in many different forms over the [past] 14 years. I met Kitten through Lou, and they are two of my closest and most dear and valued friends. They are family to me.”
Speaking of family, “I have a really important relationship with my parents,” she said. “I am lucky to have two great, caring, supportive parents. I speak with them weekly, and they are a huge support system for me.”
Additional role models off-set include “Adrienne Truscott from New York City, who I had the pleasure of working alongside this past summer,” she shared. “She’s a badass, brilliant maker/performer. John Jarboe of the Bearded Ladies in Philly is also a really thoughtful and dynamic artist.”
As for the personalities who inspire her onstage, that was easy.
“All of the femmes. All of the queers. All of the nonbinary and trans folks makin’ shit happen and paving the way,” she said. “Lately I’m inspired by Lindy West, Ijeoma Oluo, C. Davida Ingram, and the women at South Park Hall, to name a few.”
From now until DITCH opens, the “working artist and solo business owner” will spend her days most likely “doing some kind of practice in the morning: dance class, yoga, something for my training. The rest of the day is a toggle of rehearsals, administrative computer work, meetings with designers or my production manager, and errands pertaining to whatever project is current.”
Learn more about Jody Kuehner, Cherdonna Shinatra, and her new show DITCH by visiting cherdonna.com.