Sara Juli, a Waterford native, returns to perform show about motherhood at Conn College
Three weeks ago, performer Sara Juli was on the phone with a reporter from The Day — and she sounded horrible.
“I feel like I have the flu, even though I got the flu shot, but, you know, it could be a different strain,” she said.
Juli — who has daughters Hanna, 9, and Leah, 6, with husband Chris Ajemian — brushed aside an offer to reschedule the interview, explaining that this was a perfect reflection of one aspect of her new show about motherhood. The show is called “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis,” and, yes, we’ll get to that title later on.
The performance piece deals with how motherhood is an amazing job — but also a totally thankless job.
“I woke up this morning, and I could barely get out of bed, but my husband is out of town. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to get up at the same time, wake the kids up and make them breakfast, and who’s going to make their lunch and get them on the bus?’” Juli said.
“It’s one of those mother moments — ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter that I feel like poo now’ … There’s no mom thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, you stay in bed and rest.’ Which feeds into one of the themes of ‘Tense Vagina,’ so it’s a nice kind of segue.”
The show is, in part, about Juli’s post-pregnancy incontinence and the related pelvic floor rehab (“the treatment is awkward and weird and fascinating and bizarre and uncomfortable”), but it’s really about motherhood, particularly “the underbelly of motherhood, the loneliness and the beauty and the sadness” that exists, even as mothers are busy telling people that everything is great, she says.
Juli weaves all this into a performance piece that uses movement, humor, sound, text, and audience interaction. The New Yorker said the show “is often like a standup routine performed in a supine position while doing Kegel exercises.”
Juli will perform “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis” Saturday at Connecticut College, and it’s a return home for her. Juli grew up in Waterford, and her father, Harold, was a professor of anthropology at Conn for 33 years. He died in 2007. Her mother, Harriet, still lives here. Juli says of her father that Connecticut College “was, apart from my mother, his great love … I feel his presence when I’m on the campus.”
Juli has been making solo performance pieces since she graduated from Skidmore College in 2000, where she majored in dance and anthropology.
“What I discovered early on is that my motivation is working with really personal topics. I call them my healing dances,” she says. “I sort of use them as dance therapy for myself — which is what’s really bothering me, what’s really on my mind, what’s keeping me up at night, what am I thinking about that’s coming from a deep place inside. And how do I use my artistic expression as a way to explore that concept and then perform it for others?” she says.
Juli says it started with what she calls a selfish impulse to create these works but, over the years, she learned that “performing these very personal dances is an amazing way to connect to audiences because you’re really putting yourself out there, but then also finding the universality of the human experience.”
She created a show about grieving and loss after her father died, and she did one inspired by falling in love with her now-husband. “The Money Conversation,” which she performed at Connecticut College in 2007, was spurred by the money issues she and her husband faced when they first wed; she gave away her own money to audience members during the show, and they had the option of returning it to her — or not.
With “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis,” Juli says, “What this piece is about, millions of other women have experienced or suffered from. What I’ve come to learn is anything that’s bothering and plaguing me is bothering and plaguing so many other people simultaneously.”
Juli developed postpartum depression with her second child. She says that the period after giving birth is quite singular experience; it’s sacred and wonderful but also isolating and lonely.
She struggled initially navigating this new territory, and that was compounded by physical ailments that followed labor — particularly incontinence (“Every time I jumped up and down, I peed in my pants,” she says.) Juli gave birth naturally and says her vagina wasn’t healing; “I say my vagina died in childbirth,” she says. “But no one quite prepares you for that ahead of time.”
Indeed, when she joined moms’ groups, they talked about their babies but not their own bodies.
Finally, four years after the birth of her second child, she got up the nerve to ask her OB-GYN about the incontinence. The doctor replied simply that, “Oh, I’ll sign you up for pelvic floor rehab.”
Pelvic floor rehab is a few months of intensive physical therapy where muscle is retrained. The therapy was, Juli says, life-changing. (Now, she says, “I exercise with pleasure instead of shame. I’m not keeping the maxi-pad industry alive by myself.”)
She wondered why no one discusses pelvic floor rehab with women right after they give birth. In France, she notes, they do; in the U.S., a woman has to seek it out.
Something that happened on the first day of pelvic floor rehab inspired the show’s title: the physical therapist told Juli she had a tense vagina.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Oh, my god, thank you so much, you have given the title of this dance!’” she recalls.
Juli did wonder if she should soften the title but decided, she says, that “it was important to stay true to myself, which is to stay brave and to be as personal as I can get.”
She premiered “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis” in 2015 at SPACE Gallery in Portland, Maine, where she lives.
She went on to perform it at the American Dance Festival — which was at Connecticut College decades ago and is now at Duke University — and other venues, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this past summer, where she did the show 22 days in a row.
Her performance pieces boast a great deal of humor, and that is something Juli says she stumbled upon.
“I started making these very personal dances from a serious and real place and started performing with audiences, and audiences laughed,” she says.
At age 21, she did a “naked angry dance” titled “Righteous Indignation.” (“Now I wouldn’t dare show my breasts,” Juli says.) At first, she didn’t know what to make of the audience laughing. But she realized she was a funny performer with good comic timing. And she understood that when people are uneasy or embarrassed or Juli is accessing something deep, they tend to laugh — it’s a natural reaction to feeling uncomfortable.
Juli, who has a fundraising consulting practice, is currently working on a new piece about marriage and its challenges.
As for “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis,” Juli says it’s not just a show for mothers to see. Students, for instance, have thanked Juli after the show for the opportunity to think about their mothers — and one student said that the show reminded her not to get pregnant any time soon and opined that “the show is the best birth control ever.”
Beyond that, Juli says, “It’s a feminist piece, it’s a relevant piece and it certainly fits in with what’s happening today with the #MeToo movement and the importance of women advocating for their own bodies and their own rights.”
Sara Juli, “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis,” 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Tansill Theater, Connecticut College, New London; $20, $18 seniors, $10 students; (860) 439-2787.
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