Nothing could have prepared Robert Bartels for what happened to him at Monday’s City Council meeting.
The 36-year-old civil engineer was there to be appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals. But he quickly became a prop in an interpretive dance, sitting there helplessly as a woman crawled all over him pretending to vomit.
“I knew when her eyes met mine that she was all about freaking the mundanes,” Bartels said, noting he is often singled out in crowds. “I think it worked.”
She is Sara Juli, a performing dance artist who had been invited to open the City Council meeting as part of Mayor Ethan Strimling’s “Arts In Chamber” series. Past performances have included musical guests, poets and actors – none of whom are paid, Strimling said. The artists are selected by Creative Portland, a nonprofit set up by the city to promote its creative economy.
Portland is no stranger to strange performance art. In December, a man dressed as a tree was arrested for standing in the middle of Congress Street. But still, Juli’s performance – an excerpt of her ‘Shadow Artist’ – stood out.
After being introduced by Strimling, who noted she had received a 2017 Maine Fellowship for Performing Arts from the Maine Arts Commission, Juli, dressed in jeans and a bright orange T-shirt, shot to the front of the council dais and began panting.
Over the next four-and-a-half minutes, she visibly labored to form words and then struggled to string the words into what became a single sentence, “Have you ever tried so hard to do something that it paralyzed you?” At the same time, she continued dancing, flailing, spinning, kicking, hand-standing and jazz-handing throughout the council chamber.
Near the end of her performance, she set her sights on Bartels, who was seated in the audience next to City Councilor Jill Duson. Pretending she was about to be sick, Juli jumped on top of Bartels and began climbing all over him. “I was hoping the whole time that it was going to remain an act and she wasn’t going to really throw up on me,” he said.
After that episode, Juli looked Bartel in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry.” Then she ran to the side of the room, next to a police officer, and kept repeating the sentence with a quickened pace until it turned into gibberish.
She ended with a loud scream. And then took a bow.
The audience, which throughout the performance didn’t seem to know how react, rewarded Juli with a warm round of applause and laughter.
As Duson returned to the dais, Strimling joked: “Did she get any on you?”
Juli, a New York City artist who moved to Portland in 2014, has been described as a “dance comic.” She said in an interview that the short length of the City Hall performance and the venue made it difficult to connect with the audience, but they eventually got it.
“Art doesn’t have to be serious. It can be funny and thought provoking at the same time,” the 38-year-old said. “I like playing with those two worlds and that divide.”
In this case, she was trying to convey the sense of an artist who is paralyzed by her fear of failure.
The performance clearly made an impression on Bartels.
After the meeting on Monday night, Bartels said he stopped at Trader Joe’s to get some barbecue sauce when he saw a familiar face.
“Lo and behold it was the dancer,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I said hey, ‘I’m the guy!’ We had a good laugh about it in Trader Joe’s.”
Bartels said he went home and told his wife, but she didn’t believe him. He was happy to learn that the performance was recorded on video.
It was a strange experience for the civil engineer who moved to Maine last summer from Portland, Oregon, whose motto is “Keep Portland Weird.”
“I guess it’s following me,” he joked.
Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at: