Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Even if You're Cherdonna and Lou
Last weekend, during a rehearsal at Velocity Dance Studio, choreographer Jody Kuehner (also known by her stage name Cherdonna Shinatra) showed some dancers how to snap. The song was Cher's 1998 single "Believe." The snap was classic and queeny: right arm upraised to mid-torso, rotating outward at the elbow while the hips drift to the left, ending with a crisp hip-cock, wrist-flick, and snap. Kuehner wanted the five dancers to snap languorously, but also at just the right moment.
"Snap on the 'ne-,'" she said, demonstrating to the song's final lyrics. "I don't need you anymore, I don't need you anymore."
The song is a fitting choice for My Obviously Unsuccessful Lifestyle, Kuehner and collaborator Ricki Mason's final evening-length show as Cherdonna and Lou, the part-drag, part-dance, part-performance-art duo. The two have made five evening-length pieces over the past five years—including loosely structured house parties—and several smaller pieces for festivals and nightclubs.
Along the way, they've gained a following that has fallen in love with the Technicolor and breezily neurotic Cherdonna and Lou universe, located somewhere between Leave It to Beaver and a 1970s glossy-magazine housewife who accidentally took her daughter's LSD. With a tall body, tall hair, and tall eye shadow that threatens to invade her hairline, Cherdonna wobbles and weaves through their dance numbers while short, lithe, and serious drag king Lou Henry Hoover tries his best to keep things in line. The result is a roller coaster between chaos and control.
It's a fine balance, as Kuehner and Mason learned while teaching at Velocity. Students tried to imitate Cherdonna and Lou by dancing badly. That didn't work. "The characters don't know it's funny," Mason said. "It's just not working for them. We're not playing off the not-working." Instead of dancing badly, the duo precisely executes dance moves designed to look almost—but not quite—conventional.
The duo occupies a peculiar but growing zone in the Seattle performance world where pop culture, cabaret culture, and contemporary performance (for lack of a better term that encompasses contemporary dance and performance art) are messing around with each other. You can see it in the Castaways, the Can Can Cabaret's sexy-but-rigorous house dancers who have also performed at On the Boards. You can also see it in the choreography of Amy O'Neal and Markeith Wiley, as well as some Dina Martina shows.
But making work in that middle zone requires a tension between different styles, and along the way, Kuehner's and Mason's interests began to diverge. Mason became increasingly attracted to the cabaret, burlesque, and club scene. "I want an audience that's there to have a good time," she said, "and a modern-dance audience is there to judge a piece of art." Drag and cabaret, she added, give her more stage time, even if she's performing in a cage at a leather bar and only a few people can see her. "I am," she said, "in my opinion, making intelligent, heartfelt work in unexpected places."
Meanwhile, Kuehner has felt the pull of the contemporary dance world and wants to continue her work with choreographers such as Pat Graney and Mark Haim. "It's hard to be a modern dancer and not get beat down," she said, "but I still want to fight the good fight." There's also the complication of shoes. "Cherdonna is a drag queen, but I can't dance the way I want to in those shoes," Kuehner said. (Because she's a woman playing a drag queen, Kuehner sometimes refers to herself as a "bio queen.") "It's like this never-ending black hole of how I can meld the drag world with my love for modern, contemporary dance." They both said their creative breakup was like most breakups—sad and scary but also exciting.
Kuehner and Mason plan to perform together in Homo for the Holidays and a few other cabaret shows, but Unsuccessful Lifestyle will be their last Cherdonna and Lou show proper. It opens with a revival of their first-ever duet, called Xanadu, made for a Velocity fundraiser several years ago. It will conclude with a draggy lip-synch to "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.