Image source: Sally Cohn 

Sara Juli has been performing since she was three years old. It brings her joy and helps her deal with the tricky parts of her life. Fortunately, her parents recognized her gift early on and enrolled her in a creative movement class, where an amazing teacher helped Sara unlock her imagination and harness her creative energy.

She danced her way through Skidmore College and for many years, participated in the American Dance Festival. In her senior year of college, a workshop with postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay taught her how to harness “magic in performance”.

It’s this idea of when you’re performing, how do you use space? How do you use time? How do you access magical cellular work that is happening all around you? I know it sounds pretty abstract, but it unlocked my ability to find my own voice. I really developed my performance voice that I have been crafting for 23 years since.

Abstract storytelling

The performance voice that Sara continues to craft is called abstract storytelling. She shares stories about her personal experiences but with no details and not from beginning to end. She tells them in a way that allows other people to dip in here and there and reflect on their own stories.

I’m a dancer, I’m an actress, I’m a comedian, and I sing, but while I am an entertainer, my works are not designed to have you sit back and let me entertain you. I’d rather create a space where we can engage together so that, and this is where I like working in abstraction, I can create enough space within the material so that you can insert yourself into my narrative.

You might see yourself reflected in any kind of creative piece — a movie, a poem, a dance, or in one of Sara’s live performances. When you experience a reflected sense of yourself, she believes it can be “the epicenter of healing”.

Difficult topics

Sara’s latest performance deals with sexual trauma. She does not shy away from difficult topics. Over the years, among other pieces, she has performed:

Image source: Heidi Wild
  • Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis
    • Focuses on the seldom-discussed and taboo aspects of motherhood, such as loss of bladder control, libido, tears, monotony, loneliness and dildos. Read my blog post about that performance.
Image source: Ben McKeown ©ADF
  • Burnt-Out Wife
    • Explores the decay and detritus of a once-promising marriage. Separation, sex deprivation, and lack of communication add up to wanting to run from the popular, yet impossible binding contract. Using her comedic text-driven dance style, Sara Juli blows up marriage.

Developing a performance about sexual trauma

Sara is very intentional about how she develops her performances. She writes structured scores with a beginning, middle, and end. They have an arc and a climax. She has several points she wants to get across but because they are all abstracted and nonlinear, you never fully know what is going on. But you get enough information to figure it out and come up with your own interpretation. She uses humor in specific places to diffuse tension and give people a chance to catch their breath. That’s when they’re more likely to notice if they relate to the material.

Sara calls her story about sexual trauma Naughty Bits. It’s a piece about two personal experiences, one when she was eight and the other when she was 21.

I’m working with Devon Kelley-Yurdin, a very talented Maine-based illustrator and graphic designer. Devin has created this visual landscape that supports the piece. The backbone is my childhood journals. I have two journals where I wrote about these experiences.

I had a wonderful Portland-based photographer, Winky Lewis, take beautiful pictures of these two journals. There’s a lot of words and word play and then seeing the handwriting of an 8-year-old little girl is really profound and heartbreaking.

Allowing space for that little girl to find forgiveness, and why wouldn’t she have felt forgiveness? But I think there’s a lot of shaming and quiet and not discussing of experiences. A long time ago when I was little and it happened to me, I decided I was naughty, which is the origin of the title. And a lot of the work is having her see that she did nothing wrong.

It was important for me to play with the word naughty. And as somebody who writes comedy, I work a lot in bits. So the title is actually naughty bits as in naughty scenes, but I loved the play on words in that it also refers to private parts.

Sara’s sexual trauma happened so long ago that she assumed she could start from a fairly settled place. It was eye-opening to realize that she needed to make a piece of art about it because of how unsettled and upset she still was these many years later.

She has cried during rehearsals or felt derailed in certain moments, but she has made great strides in terms of not letting her trauma define who she is.

I have been in and out of therapy my whole adult life. I see a therapist now and a lot of the scenes are representations of the work that we’re doing together, which is connected to brain work. It’s this concept of rewiring brain pathways. We all have the capacity to rewire our minds so that we no longer have those triggers or we no longer feel the same way we used to.

I equate it oftentimes to death, where you lose a loved one and you can feel that pain for years and years, so much so that 20 years have passed and it feels like they died yesterday. For me, sexual trauma has been somewhat similar.

Sara has done a number of work-in-progress showings in preparation for the opening of Naughty Bits. She does sections of the piece and invites feedback from the audience.

Her biggest concern as well as challenge is making sure the audience feels safe as it navigates her trauma.

In order to make a piece that I like to say kind of dances on top of my experiences, I had to make my way through them first. I couldn’t just arrive there. So, there were some showings that were really hard and afterwards some people said that was triggering for me or that made me want to get up and leave.

Those were really critical early showings that showed me I was doing too much of my pain and I needed to pull back and use my skill of abstract performance to change it, which I have done. After the last couple of showings, I have asked do you feel safe and I’ve gotten a full, yes. It’s been a process to get to that point.

Naughty Bits Premier

The Strand Theater in Rockland, Maine commissioned Naughty Bits and will premier Sara’s performance on October 13 and 14, 2023. After each performance, there will be a panel discussion that will include advocates from New Hope Midcoast and Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine. The focus of the discussion will be on sexual assault, shame and de-shaming, and available resources.

Also helping make the performance possible are dramaturge or play editor Michelle Mola, who helped Sara with the shape and craft of the piece; lighting designer Justin Moriarty; and costume designer Carol Farrell.

Sara believes that any type of creative outlet, writing, journaling, poetry, painting, etc. can be an instrument for healing. No matter how you do it, it can help you become the one in charge, not your story. Even if your story is as difficult as trying to heal from sexual trauma.

She’s tried not to make Naughty Bits too uncomfortable but says people do have to have a level of being comfortable sitting in a little discomfort.

She says the irony of using her childhood journals as a tool in this new piece is that over the course of her 23-year career, she’s had hundreds of people come up to her after shows and say, “I feel like you read my diary”.

That has been so meaningful to me, having my ability to share and overshare and be a voice for many others who are still questioning what to do with their voice as it relates to their trauma and their pain.Together we can get a lot of work done. There’s magic in that.


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