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.

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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.

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

Some Duos Are More Dynamic Than Other Duos…

…but dynamism is not the only worthy quality in dance. As the 2015 American Dance Festival continues this week with four commissioned duets by paired choreographer/dancers, it offers us a chance to not only see new work unfettered by economic constraints, but to consider what we value in dance art. Whether we value any particular style or content in these new works, we ought to all value the fact that artists have been able to make them thanks to the support of the ADF. Last year, the ADF commissioned solos; this year duos–perhaps next year it will be trios. The Dynamic Duos program opened last night in Reynolds Theater, and will run through July 1.

Jesse Zaritt, front, and Mark Haim premiered Golden Age at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Jesse Zaritt, front, and Mark Haim premiered their Golden Age at ADF on 6/29/15.  Photo: Grant Halverson.

I, for instance, greatly prefer dancing to talking in a dance work. Yet sometimes choreographers are able to introduce talking in ways that do not cancel out the communicativeness of the silent, speaking bodies, and combining the forms increases expressive power of both. Sometimes, though, more is less.

The program opens with a strange and wonderful work, Golden Age, by Mark Haim and Jesse Zaritt, that evokes superheroes–and Caravaggio. Roman ruins–and the city dump. The now–and the mist-shrouded past. It remarks on ever-ascendant youth, flaunting its glories over sturdy age. Mostly it manages this without words, relying instead on Zaritt’s beautiful dancing body, limber and exuberant, and Haim’s graceful, certain elegance of motion. Which age is golden, young or older, now or past? I’d see this again, except for the brutal after-effects of the heavy theatrical haze (that makes such wonderful stage pictures). More than 12 hours later, my eyes, throat and lungs still burn. Fortunately, Golden Age is highly memorable.

The same could not be said Taryn Griggs’ and Chris Yon’s Conspicuous Birds. The two dancers mimic various bird behaviors, while wearing fabulously glittering, wing-sleeved tops over dark pants (costumes by Tiny Yogg’s Ma). The lighting plays marvelously on the fabrics as the dancers move. Clearly, they have closely observed many species of birds, and many of the movement patterns are true and charming. The problem is, the movement doesn’t vary much, but it goes on for a long time. And nothing really happens, dramatically speaking.

Taryn Griggs, L, and Chris Yon in the premiere of Conspicuous Birds at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Taryn Griggs, L, and Chris Yon in the premiere of Conspicuous Birds at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

After a rousing start with the Overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Small Stories fell silent. Claire Porter and Sarah Juli stood far downstage, one on either side, in satin recital gowns, alternately mouthing words as a single spot alternately separated them from the darkness. The effect was similar to a flashing ad on a web page–very irritating. Eventually the volume increases to audible, but the language remains fragmentary a while longer before actual sentences emerge. After that, the experience is like catching bits of conversation in a moving crowd, or like listening to chickens cluck and fuss while pecking for food. When it got to the stage of the movement artists mockingly mouthing the words to “Che Gelida Manina,” (Pavarotti version) and for no apparent reason pulling up their petticoats to reveal red underpants, my across-the-aisle neighbor (a man renowned for both his courtesy and his passion for music) abruptly decamped. There was nothing I valued in this piece, except for the fact that the makers had had the opportunity to try something.

Sara Juli, front, and Claire Porter in the premiere of their Small Stories at ADF 6/129/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Sara Juli, front, and Claire Porter in the premiere of their Small Stories at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

I had to stay, because I had to see what Rosie Herrera and Larry Keigwin had gotten up to together. These two are wacky, brilliant and skillful on their own–what kind of craziness would they make together? Something Wonderful has some pretty wonderful moments, and the piece begins with dancing. Larry Keigwin can move! Such a pleasure to see him again. And Rosie Herrera has an unerring instinct for both motion and stillness, and knows just where to slice with her scalpel, dramatically speaking, so that we can see the forces at work on the human heart. There’s a bit with a poem and a microphone (a little too long) that makes the analogy (perhaps too clearly) between the art-making process and the love-making endeavor that’s so smart and funny that one easily forgives its slight self-indulgence. Bruised, broken, bloodied but unbowed, these artists, tangled up in art, will dance on. In this case, dynamically.

Larry Keigwin and Rosie Herrera in the premiere of Something Wonderful at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Larry Keigwin and Rosie Herrera in the premiere of Something Wonderful at ADF 6/29/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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