Story Body: Sara Juli’s TENSE VAGINA, at ADF Out of the Box

The American Dance Festival‘s tag line this season is “every body tells a story.” Well, yeah. As my long-time readers know, I generally prefer those bodies not to have microphones. I want them to shut up and dance the story, however abstract or literal. The great power of dance, to my mind, lies in its non-verbal nature. If dance is going to be dance-theater, please please let it show me, not tell me. But as dance-theater, undeterred by my little wishes, moves further and further from pure dance, it gets talkier and talkier and less and less dancey. Movement pieces with monologues are the rage. The current ADF Out of the Box presentation at Motorco takes this trend to its logical conclusion, being a monologue with movement.

Leave aside for now the question of whether including such performance art in a dance festival is a step too far. Sara Juli‘s Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis is quite a thing. For 60 minutes, Juli exposes the underbelly (if you’ll pardon the expression) of motherhood, keeping her focus squarely on the bodily aspects of mothering, and the madness lurking in its monotonous repetitions. The show is designed around the not so uncommon problem of urinary incontinence after childbirth, and what to do about it. Kegel! and two and three and four and five and release; and Kegel! I have to say, I never thought I’d hear a discussion of the physiology of Kegeling, let alone vaginal massage, in mixed company.


Sarah Juli, in her performance work Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis, in the Showroom at Motorco, as ADF goes Out of the Box, 6/22/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Tense Vagina is thrillingly feminist, and very much belongs to the current zeitgeist. We’ve got HRC with chunks of glass glittering on her shoulders, talking about her mother. We’ve got US Senator Elizabeth Warren verbally kicking Donald Trump in the nuts. We’ve got high school girls in Helena, MT organizing bra-less protests to end double standards regarding female bodies. We’ve got Monica Byrne, Durham author, taking on the patriarchy at every opportunity, and laying waste to the taboo on menstrual blood. Hell yes, it is time to talk about tense vaginas.

What is so interesting about Tense Vagina, beyond its bold humor and unashamed realism, is that it is made in a dancerly way. Its verbal gymnastics progress like dance sequences, which then build and interlock into a larger structure, as in dance making. It’s very cool, and very smart, and the segues are particularly strong. (There are the occasional lacunae, but maybe those are purposeful indications of the intermittent blankness induced by numbing routine and the rhythmic breast pump thunk.) Naturally, there is also an audience participation aspect, so if you don’t want Mother Juli giving you a spit bath or fluffing your hair or cradling you to her breast, sit well away from the aisles. I was on the aisle and she sat in my lap! I swatted her bottom, but it was just a love tap.

The show repeats June 23 and 24, with performances at 7 and 9. Tickets here.


Here beginneth the First Lesson from the Catalogue of Dildos. Sara Juli onstage in Tense Vagina, 6/22/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

MARKSMAN, take aim: Kate Weare’s new work premieres at ADF

After having seen Kate Weare‘s dance Lay Me Down Safe, performed by the Scottish Dance Theatre in 2012, I had been eagerly awaiting her new work commissioned by the American Dance Festival (and The Joyce Theater). Marksman, danced by six members of the Kate Weare Company, premiered in Reynolds Theater June 21 as ADF continues. Sad to say, the movement language was not very imaginative, and the dancing was short on force and clarity.


Kate Weare Company in Weare’s ADF-commissioned Marksman, which premiered in Reynolds Theater 6/21/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


Marksman‘s basic idea is always intriguing, and a potent one for dance making: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A marksman releases an arrow; the pierced target quivers, perhaps falls; the marksman’s satisfaction either bears up or crumbles under the unleashed force of destruction or death; whichever way, the both the marksman and the target are changed. Any energy one exerts rebounds in some way. The maker makes, but the thing made also shapes the maker. The life force erupts everywhere, irrespective of the previous condition of surroundings–babies tear through their mothers’ bodies; chicks shatter eggs, tree sprouts upend sidewalks and bring down foundations, and then there’s love. But the receiving environment or person exerts its own counterforce. The life-dance is endless, perpetual motion. However, art must come to an end, and must therefore make a little drama out of physical and metaphysical facts, if it is to succeed in retaining our attention and adding to the sum total of human wisdom. 50 minutes of restating the opening premise with minor variations doesn’t quite do that.


An instant of eruptive force in Marksman, 6/21/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

It’s possible that first-night hesitancy drained some of the necessary energies from the dance. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the composition of any of the segments, although you can’t get around there being no real build of tension to go with the increasing tempo over the course of the work. None of the push/push back, or compression/release contrasts fueled the viewer’s bodily appreciation of the theme, and this viewer did not often feel the eruptive vitality often hinted at by outthrust arms. The music, composed and designed by Curtis Robert Macdonald, has all the same issues, and seemed to just wander around, unfocused. The set design by Clifford Ross shows an engrossing landscape, a craggy ridge behind dark trees, seen between gray columns. With a change in Mike Faba’s lighting, we see it as three hanging banners, which underlines the idea of flow between the changer and the changed. Overall, though, the lighting is a bit dim: the lovely details of the elegant costumes (Sarah Cubbage) that were visible to the camera could not be seen from row J.

In a way, it doesn’t really matter that any one dance doesn’t quite jell. Of course, one would rather see a great dance. But it matters more that the artists get opportunities to make complex artworks with high production values, and it matters very much that people go to see what they have made. If the art doesn’t hit us, the target, cleanly–well, the audience’s energy affects the art, too. We are all part of the energy loop.


This sex-reversed Cupid and Psyche moment was among the more compelling dance sequences in Marksman, 6/21/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The program repeats tonight, Wed. June 22, and Thurs. June 23 at 8 pm, Reynolds Theater. Tickets here.

Tonight also begins Sarah Juli’s 3-night run in ADF’s Out of the Box series, in the Showroom at Motorco. Shows at 7 and 9 thru the 24th Tickets for that here.


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Across the Grain, in Lenoir, NC. The documentary follows this project through to its welcome by the sculpture-loving community. Photo: courtesy Minnow Media.


I’ve just had a sneak preview of a fine new documentary that will air on UNC-TV this week. Georgian Eubanks and Donna Campbell, the excellent storytellers of Minnow Media, have produced an hour-long doc on Thomas Sayre, a North Carolina artist I have long admired, as a person and for his work. Sayre lives in Raleigh, and many examples of his work can be seen there, and around the state.


Focusing on what will undoubtedly be his most important body of work in a long and varied career, Earthcaster looks intimately at Sayre’s compelling process of large-scale in-ground casting, and lets him speak in his erudite, humble and inimitable way about what he makes, and how and why he does it. I’ve had the good luck to meet and talk with Sayre many times since the mid-80s when I first saw him casting concrete in rectangular forms, and he is one of the smartest and most interesting people I’ve ever run across. His own words are buttressed by thoughtful interviews with a range of people who know his art well. We also get to meet some of Sayre’s team–the heavy equipment operators, the concrete specialists, the riggers–whose energy also goes into the architecturally scaled work Sayre conceives.



Ricky Pearce carving the casting trench as Sayre lays out the shapes for work in Portland OR. Photo: courtesy Minnow Media.


The doc is beautifully shot, on many sites over an extended period, and edited in a calm way that also conveys a great deal about Thomas and his process. Eubanks and Campbell have done a very nice job intercutting Sayre’s fascinating art process with family history and biographical material and crucial information on Sayre’s upbringing, letting the connection between man and art reveal itself from different angles. It is not a comprehensive biography of Thomas Hart Sayre, but it catches his generous, exacting personality and reflective nature, hinting at the wisdom he’s cultivated from the red clay.


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Thomas Sayre, happy with the newly installed earthcasting at the University of Maryland-Baltimore. Photo: courtesy Minnow Media.


If you think staying home to watch TV might make you miss your dance fix (what? not everyone goes to ADF every night?), fear not. The film includes several scenes of dancing around and on Gyre, Sayre’s well-loved rings rising from the red dirt of the NC Museum of art sculpture park. Raleigh’s Black Box Dance Company (including Justin Tornow) performs, and we see some lovely shots of the dancers and the dance, turning and turning.

For more information, see EARTHCASTER will premiere on UNC-TV Thursday, June 23, at 10 pm.


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Filmmakers Donna Campbell, left, and Georgann Eubanks, on the site of one of Sayre’s enormous castings. Hard hats not optional. Photo: courtesy Minnow Media.


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