Kelly O

IS:

The alter ego of choreographer Jody Kuehner.

CAN BE DESCRIBED AS:

What would happen if you put a drag queen, a modern dancer, and a person with psychological issues into a blender, and then poured the result into a vintage gown.

SAYS:

"I'm trying to find my way into what feminist performance art is today."



Cherdonna opened the 2015 Genius Awards at the Moore Theatre by sneaking onstage as if she were in the dark, as if no one could see her. She wasn't in the dark, and everyone could see her—including dozens of musicians in the Seattle Rock Orchestra and more than 1,000 people in the audience. As entrances go, she was classically on-brand. Cherdonna looks like a drag queen and, sartorially speaking, really has her shit together—but Cherdonna isn't really a drag queen and she does not have her shit together.

As the orchestra launched into the instantly recognizable strains of "Holiday" by Madonna, Cherdonna exploded into movement. She was wearing floor-length fringe the colors of her wig. The fringe, made of rat-tail cording instead of the softly shimmying material burlesque performers use, almost made her frame look like a beaded curtain, which she could then explode through with her arms or legs. Soon, two male backup dancers emerged onstage wearing six-by-five-foot Cherdonna heads. (The gown was designed by Danial Hellman; the heads were designed by Corrie Befort.) The dancers, Patrick Kilbane and Daniel Costa, were nearly naked, with bushels of golden fringe at their crotches and around their ankles and wrists. Even though you could tell they were men from their bare chests, they each wore huge ruby-red lips and eyelashes you could see through the open mouths on the masks.


Cherdonna and the boys in midair. She’s wearing floor-length fringe the colors of her wig. The backup dancers are Daniel Costa and Patrick Kilbane. Josh Bis

Right as the song went "You can turn this world around and bring back all of those happy days," Cherdonna had a meltdown. She forced the orchestra to stop playing the song. She started thwacking at things with her fringe gown—the conductor, her dancers, the audience—"Wait! Wait! Wait!" But she was unable to articulate anything other than "Wait!" Characteristically, the meltdown was not explained to the audience; it was presented in physical terms only, as movement and as uncomfortable silence. Jody Kuehner, the choreographer who invented and inhabits Cherdonna, said later backstage: "It's political to me. These are, like, the dumbest lyrics. It just seemed perfectly ironic for what's happening now with cops shooting people of color in the streets and Black Lives Matter. 'Put your troubles down, take a holiday,' and no one will get shot anymore. What I'm hoping is that people understand that I'm making a comment on how dumb those lyrics are in the climate of what's going on."

Kilbane, one of the backup dancers, was also backstage and had just taken off the huge Cherdonna head with a little help from some bystanders. Kilbane is 29 and has studied ballet since he was 14. He's danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, is a member of the Northwest Dance Project, and makes solo contemporary work. "This is not my jam to do backup dancing," he said. "But for her? Yeah." I asked him why, and he said, "Jody's doing something in performance that I've never seen before. She's combining so many mediums: experimental performance art with contemporary dance with drag with installation art and sound design and costuming."

When I asked him what it was like wearing the head, he said, "It was like being inside Cherdonna's big wet mouth."

What no one in the audience knew—what no one in the orchestra knew, either—was that two hours before showtime, Kuehner realized she was getting her period. "Ever since I got my period, I've had debilitating cramps so painful I can barely breathe," she said. "Painful, awful terribleness." She's been to multiple doctors and naturopaths. "In the past, I've missed performances or canceled performances because I'm in too much pain. And there's already a stigma like 'Oh, is she having her period?' 'Is she PMSing?' I feel like it's not treated in the same way as when someone has a rotator cuff injured or something, because it's this female thing. It gets shoved aside... So I was like, 'Oh fuck, please don't let this be happening right now.'"

But it was happening. She got a little spotting, and she was bracing herself mentally for the pain. The heavy-duty anti-inflammatory she usually takes was at home. Costa, the other backup dancer, brought her some ibuprofen and, she said, "He's like, 'You only need to take one,' and I thought, 'I need to take 10 of these to do anything, but you don't know my history.' Cramps are a big deal! So many women struggle with cramps that are debilitating. Guys don't understand how incredibly crazy it can be."

Right before curtain, I stopped by her dressing room and heard Kuehner saying, "I just need something preventative if I'm going to go out there and be Madonna."

She went out there and she killed it. The audience had no idea.

In her dressing room, she started talking about MIA's drummer who recently ran the London Marathon during her period and decided to just let the blood run down her legs. We talked about whether there might be subject matter here for future Cherdonna pieces. Cherdonna is a drag queen who's not a drag queen—a woman who adopts the tropes of feminine overexpression to make work about the tensions and expectations of gender—and people constantly make assumptions about who she is.

"I'm trying to find my way into what feminist performance art is today," she said.

She originally hired female backup dancers for the Genius Awards, and then she changed her mind. The same thing happened when she made Worth My Salt, a show at Velocity Dance Center last year. "I hired women first and then I told them: 'Never mind.' I think when I put myself with men, I look more like a drag queen. And I'm trying to play with gender."

Her next projects include performing at Velocity's fall kick-off on September 25, dancing (as Kuehner, not as Cherdonna) in Pat Graney's show at On the Boards that runs October 1 through 4, performing (as Cherdonna) at the Frye Art Museum on November 13, guest-starring in the Atomic Bombshells show Lost in Space (as Cherdonna) November 19 to 21, and appearing in Homo for the Holidays (as Cherdonna) in December. She also just won a National Dance Project production grant, which comes with $40,000 in support of a national tour (she's going to Portland, Austin, Tampa, and Minneapolis in the 2017–2018 season) and an additional unrestricted cash grant of $12,000. She plans to perform with a brass band onstage. "I know I want it to have a silent-film feel, with music scored to my movements," she said. And then she grinned. "And I want live kittens, to introduce the element of risk." recommended