The first minute of Sara Juli’s performance was silent. From the center of the small stage in Gannett Theater, she took a moment to look deep inside everyone’s eyes with a compassion that reminded one of a mother. This minute was the only silent one – the other 59 minutes of performance were filled with laughter, Disney songs, dildos vibrating and toys squeaking. What could better depict motherhood if not an intense mixture between compassion and tension in the everyday life?
Juli’s performance is thoughtfully crafted from beginning to end, starting with the title. As explained during the performance, a tense vagina is an actual medical condition in which the pelvic and vaginal muscles are in a constant state of tension, causing urinary incontinency. There are many moments in which Sara Juli explores the tense vagina as a medical, physical and individual condition, causing laughter from her mostly young audience.
But there are other moments in which the tense vagina dives deep into social and family relations – going far beyond a simple comic performance. On occasion, the laughter ceased shortly as the performer cried or agonized on the floor repeating words such as “hold me” several times. Repetition is central to comedy, but can be a source of cringing. Three times is the magic number for transforming the banal into the laughter. But more than three repetitions and it the atmosphere becomes tense. Words start to lose their meanings and toy sounds may become irritating. When the cringing and tension reached the apex, Juli moved the scene away from crisis to Pilates exercises. “Hold me” became the “hold” of a pelvic strengthening exercise – the tension in the audience burst into enjoyment. The tension in the title is much beyond a physical condition: the actual diagnosis involves some extra social symptoms of motherhood.
Juli’s performance is loaded with a refined analysis of motherhood in our society. Firstly, motherhood exposes mothers’ private worlds to the public. All of a sudden, you have a large belly that everyone wants to touch, and you also start to gain weight, etc. Anthropologists theorize that what makes spaces such as hospitals, for example, so uncomfortable is that there is no sense of privacy in those spaces. Your clothes are replaced and doctors will see and manipulate your bodily fluids – which we don’t usually talk about under normal circumstances. Juli is able to make fun of the taboos of motherhood specifically because they are taboos! An open discussion about breastfeeding, vaginas, dildos, pelvic muscles, lust and masturbation is a recipe for tension (and uncontrollable laughter) in this performance.
It should come as no surprise that Juli double majored in Dance and Anthropology at Skidmore College. When asked about the influence of her Anthropology degree to the creation of her performance, she said it did not have a direct influence, but that she certainly carried anthropology knowledge because of her undergraduate years. Transforming something banal into something comic requires more than just dance and theater techniques. It requires a perception that our everyday life can look absurd, senseless, and comic if we are able to zoom in enough and distort it just a bit.
Two years led to this performance at Bates College, one of craft and one of other performances. Several other years can be accounted to those numbers if you include Juli’s experience as a mother – her two children were the ideal inspiration to create “Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis.”
Similar to the beginning, the ending of the performance deserves special attention. After having given snacks and taken care of her audience, Sara Juli reenacts one of the first scenes of the performance – the beginning of her daily routine as a mother, talking to her children (the audience) about how awesome today will be. The loop reminds us that all the cringing and taboos are part of daily life, not something exceptional or out of the norm.
“Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis” is thought provoking. Motherhood is physically, socially and psychologically complex. It is full of taboos and tension that dwell between the awkward and the comic – too many unspoken things that many women have to go through alone.
By the end of the performance, more than just an enlightened understanding of motherhood and a sense of relief remained in me; I felt a desperate need to talk to my own mother about urinary incontinence.