I assumed Jody Kuehner was around six feet tall or more because of how she moves her body. As femme drag queen slash feminist performance artist slash choreographer slash modern dancer slash clown Cherdonna Shinatra, Kuehner's long body is the medium from which she explores how a veneer of relentless happiness masks the true difficulties of the world.
I was close; she's five feet ten. But before I asked her that, I asked if it was okay for me to write about her body. I know that sounds hand-wringingly PC, but I've been wrestling with this question for a while. As a spectator, what am I entitled to when it comes to women's bodies?
DITCH, Kuehner's upcoming performance installation at the Frye Art Museum, features Kuehner and her new dance troupe, called DONNA, offering up their queer and femme-identifying bodies to the public every day the museum is open. Over the course of 80 performances, they will occupy the gallery space amid an explosion of color. The installation also includes a huge MomDonna sculpture with a giant vagina from which the performers will be "birthed" each day.
That it takes place in a museum (not a theater or bar) and during the day (instead of at night) structures the presentational framework in a very specific way. As far as I can tell, DITCH may be the first of its kind not only for a museum but for contemporary dance: a long-running dance performance outside of a traditional space.
Why put Cherdonna Shinatra in a museum setting?
"Museums often obscure, exclude, or downplay queer and femme bodies inside their walls. DITCH flips this script by giving full rein to fierce queer femmes and provides a space for Cherdonna's particular blend of gender clownery to be seen in the light of day rather than secluded nightclubs," curator David Strand told me.
The evolution of DITCH has transpired over the past couple of years following Kuehner's performance at the Frye as part of the 2015 Stranger Genius Awards. During that time, she became interested in the lesbian separatist movement of the 1970s that sought to create a society absent of men.
"I was interested in this idea of creating a utopia or a second society. Humans aren't really built to have a perfect utopia, though. There's always going to be conflict and struggle," Kuehner told me.
She hit a wall while developing the project, and she wondered why it mattered and if people would care. She worried she'd have to leave performance altogether and become a social worker or lawyer. Then she decided the goal of DITCH would be to make everyone happy.
"Everyone who walks into the gallery, I'm going to make them so happy. Which again is an impossible task," Kuehner said.
From January 26 through April 28, the general public will be privy to Kuehner's utopian experiment of queering the museum space. It remains to be seen how many new followers the cult of Cherdonna Shinatra will gain.