By day Jody Kuehner lives the life of a mild-mannered dancer, but at night she morphs into an entirely different flashy character that gallivants and artfully flails across the stage with the swagger of an awkward pop diva. While it might not be a superhero-level switcheroo, Kuehner’s over-the-top alter ego Cherdonna Shinatra possesses a pizzazz that puts many of Seattle’s male drag performers to shame. Her colorful costumes, wild wigs, and garish makeup transforms her into a vibrant beacon for her expressive choreography. Thanks to Velocity Dance Center's Made in Seattle dance development program, Kuehner is now ready to debut her first evening-length Cherdonna show, Worth My Salt. In it, she explores femininity, gender inequality, and existential crisis in her typically brash style (featuring costumes by museum-worthy designer Mark Mitchell). The show opens this Friday, October 17 at Velocity Dance Center and runs through Sunday, October 26.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked with Kuehner about the process of transforming into Cherdonna, pulling together disperate influences, and mixing Seattle's burlesque and modern dance worlds.
What aspects of Worth My Salt are you most excited about on a personal level?
I'm most excited about the amount of time I've been able to settle into a deeper process with my movement. The residency at Velocity has really let me kind of go there. As a dance artist there are so many different things that you can study, so to speak, and in the last few years I've been really interested in (things) like Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation that happens at Velocity. So it's been really exciting just to get in the studio by myself and be like, “Okay, how do I move? What does my body want to do, and how do I do that to its fullest capacity?”
In your own words, how would you describe Worth My Salt?
I mean, in most simple terms, it’s a dance show. A dance performance with high costuming. I guess spectacle is not the right word, but the costuming and the set are loud.
A visually loud dance performance.
Yeah! I love that. A visually loud dance performance. That is awesome.
What was the spark that led to the creation of this evening-length piece?
Really, the spark was Tonya Lockyer (the artistic director) at Velocity saying, "Okay, it's time. What do you think about Made in Seattle's program? Let's get you in here doing a solo show." She's really supportive in me trying to figure out what a solo career looks like. I'm always making work so I don't think I would have not made it, but definitely to the quickness to it was Tonya being like "Let's do this, I believe in you." And then a year later, here we are.
You’ve cited some pretty diverse influences that contributed to Worth My Salt, ranging from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to Kate Bush’s music. How did you go about the process of pulling together these seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole?
It's really interesting; I was just talking about this in rehearsal with my dancers. The things that I've pulled from have been sort of randomly based on my intuition, or not purposeful. I didn't know that Cosmos, Kate Bush, and Diane Keaton would all of a sudden be all talking about the same thing. There were just things that I would hear or see that I was like, “There's something in that. I have to go further into that. I have to grab that piece of text or sound or visual and start just working with it.” And then in the rehearsal process, it's been quite amazing that they really have fallen in line in a way that I could never have predicted. It's been a little bit of magic, I have to say, and a lot of trust. My whatever says that I need to follow this through and that it will all connect. And it really has.
Do you have any preshow routines?
Not specifically. Getting into makeup for this is really a huge part of it. The costuming part and the makeup part—the drag part—has become its own little ritual. There are things that I do first and second, and I like to wear this certain tank top, and this certain pair of dance pants, and have a certain comfort ability, and have all my things set up. So I think there is a little bit of anal ritualness to getting ready. I tend to be like a nervous anxious person.
How long does the prep take to get in full makeup?
The makeup takes about an hour to an hour and a half. To get fully dressed and hair and all of that is about a two-hour process. So usually try to leave three hours, because I need time to warm up my body.
Is there anything process to finding the character? Transforming from Jody to Cherdonna?
I think the biggest thing for me when I'm getting ready is that I feel I always have to give myself a little pep talk of like, “The way in is to just go in all the way.” If I hold back at all, then it doesn't work or I don't find it. So there's always this moment of like, “Okay, I have to do it. I have to really put all of myself into it and be completely vulnerable and completely open to whatever is happening in the moment.” There’s almost always a little sense of improvisation even though all of it is set material. Through that little open window is, I think, where the best things happen or keep it really alive. But there is like that moment before I go on where I'm like, “Okay, I really hope I can just not hold back at all.”
How has Seattle influenced your art?
I definitely think the drag, queer, LGBTQ scene generally has influenced me. I know there is a lot everywhere, but Seattle is budding. Definitely the burlesque scene, all of that cabaret stuff, has clearly affected me and my work. And then it's kinda morphed with the dance side of Seattle being super contact improvisation, lots of floor work, and release based technique. KT Niehoff for sure has formed my dancing, she’s been a huge influence. I am a queer person and I take part in all of the things that Seattle has to offer as far as nightlife and shows and such like that, and also I'm interested in all kinds of research dance wise. That is what my work is, a marriage of those two worlds.Made in Seattle: Jody Kuehner – The Cherdonna Show: Worth My Salt
Oct 17–26, Velocity Dance Center, $20–$25