Sara Juli is a New-York based performance artist who uses personal aspects of her own life as fodder for one-woman shows that invite the audience to laugh at and then deeply ponder the stuff we don’t talk about in polite company. She makes her Chicago debut with “Burnt-Out Wife” at the Dance Center of Columbia College April 22-23.
I’m not so familiar with your work. Is this your first time performing in Chicago?
I’ve been to Chicago for fun, but this is my first time performing in Chicago. I take very personal topics and incorporate movement and sound and songs, text, humor and audience interaction to shed light on that personal topic. It’s self-serving in that performing is how I make sense of complicated issues, generally related to being a female on this earth. And then I’m interested in using performances as a portal for other female and female-identified people to engage in dialogue, to heal, to not feel shame. And I’m very passionate about that.
I have a beautiful body of work I’m very proud of. What I love about them is they run concurrently with rites of passage in my life. In my twenties I made a piece reconciling my own promiscuity and my self-worth and self-value. Then fast-forward, I made a piece called “Burden” about falling in love with a non-Jewish man while having a strong Jewish identity. The piece I made before “Burnt-Out Wife” in my thirties is called “Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis.” about postpartum depression and specifically about post-childbirth urinary incontinence. I know I’m not the only one who peed in their pants after pushing too hard. What does it mean to de-shame and shout from the rooftops that I peed in my pants and went through pelvic-floor rehab? It felt good to tell my story so other women could know that treatment even exists.
What’s painted over all these pieces is comedy. Humor is a lens through which people can see things more clearly. It’s hard to look at our problems until we can laugh at them, then we can get underneath them and start working on them. I love the strategic inclusion of comedy to get at the heart of an issue. Plus it’s entertaining as all hell.
And this brings us to “Burnt-Out Wife,” which you’re performing at the Dance Center.
Yes. I put so much energy into child-rearing, then [my children] got to an age where it’s not so consuming all the time. So I put my lens on all the things I’d neglected while I was nursing and changing diapers. My marriage floated to the top in that it wasn’t getting the attention it needed to survive, never mind thrive. I communicated this to my partner which lead to marriage counseling, and I discovered he wasn’t feeling so hot about things, either. It seemed like marriage was next on the list. Now, of course, I’m waiting for menopause.
You might want to plan for a show or two in-between…
Okay, I’m not ready to make that dance, but I feel like I have the three Ms: Motherhood, marriage and menopause. But menopause would be premature and this piece came out prior. The idea is looking at the underbelly of long-term partnerships. I created this character who is alone in her bathroom. I imagined a Saturday night, the kids are asleep, it’s 9pm. I worked with the talented visual artist Pamela Moulton who created this Pepto-Bismol bathroom the character never leaves for the hourlong duration of the show. I teamed up with my longtime costume designer Carol Farrell, and I have seven costume changes that take place onstage. I’m in my underpants a lot which I think makes sense for the vulnerability of the character. And what I appreciate about my body is that it’s very real and represents a lot of different types of women. There are a lot of… shapes.
You use humor and storytelling, audience connection—the type of performance that audiences find easy to connect to. But I see you identify first as a dancer and your work is presented at dance festivals and now at the Dance Center. How does dance factor into your work?
I’m glad you asked that. I’m madly in love with dance. When I was three years old, my parents put me in dance class and I took dance all the way through majoring in dance at Skidmore College. I trained pretty heavily in modern, contemporary and improv practices. My senior year of college I took a workshop with Deborah Hay of Judson Church and had something of an “a-ha” moment. Her teaching unlocked something in me where I literally found my voice while moving in space. I used her concepts to develop speaking while I moved—so much so that I’m now fairly incapable of moving without speaking. They’ve become a unit and are seamless. Speaking came second and then singing evolved from the speaking. In my twenties I made a piece about emotions; when I performed it people started laughing and I was confused. I didn’t think I was making something funny because I was dancing my anger and shame. But I decided to embrace it and craft it. Now there’s no making of art without including all of these components.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I’d love for people to take a risk on this show, especially if you’re in a long-term partnership yourself, because it opens up dialogue. Some of the best feedback I’ve ever gotten after a show was someone saying they came with their partner and on the drive home they spoke for an hour and it led to a conversation that had yelling and crying but wound up being a conversation we needed to have.
The other thing to say is my marriage has evolved significantly since the making of this piece through the investment in marriage counseling. I appreciate that and am challenged by it.
Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 South Michigan, April 22 and 23 at 7:30pm. $30 general admission, $15 industry, $10 students. Tickets at dance.colum.edu.