Portland Ovations and Space present Sara Juli in “Burnt-Out Wife” this weekend in Portland. Photo by Allen Baldwin, courtesy of Sara Juli

Sara Juli’s unhappy marriage prompted her to create her latest dance-performance piece, “Burnt-Out Wife.”

“It’s not like I scan a bunch of options,” she said of finding the spark that leads her down a creative path, wherever it might go. “I wait for the piece to come to me. This one was 110 percent dissatisfaction in my marriage. That’s where it began. By the time I got to a place where I was ready to start making my new dance, I was also thinking about leaving my husband. That scared me, and it still scares me.”

Spoiler alert: She’s still married, and she and her husband, Chris Ajemian, will have a post-performance on-stage therapy session to talk about the work and their marriage Friday night at Space in Portland. “Burnt-Out Wife” debuts Thursday and runs through Saturday at Space. It’s a 50-minute, solo performance multimedia show with movement, comedy and music that touches on intimacy, monogamy, loneliness and what Juli describes as “the decay and detritus” of marriage. It’s about separation, sex deprivation and poor communication.

Sound familiar?

Sara Juli used her life savings of $5,000 as a prop for her piece “The Money Conversation,” which she toured internationally from 2007 to 2012. Photo courtesy of Sara Juli

Juli, who lives in Falmouth, received a National Dance Project Award for “Burnt-Out Wife,” and will tour it nationally this winter and spring. Space and Portland Ovations co-commissioned the piece. The performance is part of Portland Ovations’ focus on Maine artists during the bicentennial year.

Exploring deeply personal topics, often with humor, is consistent with Juli’s 20-year track record as a performing artist. She has made art about her promiscuous 20s, the burden of marrying a non-Jew, the death of her father, and her vagina. She wrote “The Money Conversation” to address her own money issues, which were “eating me” alive in her 20s, she said. For that piece, she cashed out her savings of $5,000 and gave it all away over the course of her performance, bowed and departed the stage, “releasing myself of the burden of my entire savings.”

Audience members could pocket the cash or give it back, returning the money to a drop-box on the way out of the theater. Using the simple prop of what was then her life savings, she toured “The Money Conversation” with some version of that $5,000 all over the world for five years, and received attention in The New York Times, on National Public Radio and international media outlets.

In the development stage of “Burnt-Out Wife,” Juli performed in lingerie and a veil, and portrayed her marriage as suffocating. “Is this thing binding? How long? Can we negotiate new terms? I can’t breathe. I’m OK, but I can’t breathe,” she said, backing down the aisle with instant doubt.

She surprises, shocks and unsettles audiences.

“She is both brave and vulnerable, and that combination is what makes her the powerful and important artist she is,” said Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations. “She says things that people might write in their journal or they might tell their closest friend, maybe, but they certainly don’t say it on stage. That’s part of the power of the vulnerable, brave artist.”

Petrin served on the national review panel that judged applications for National Dance Project funding, which is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. Juli received $45,000, and Petrin said her work stood out among 170 applications because of its authenticity and Juli’s ability to effectively combine movement, comedy and theatrical elements. Juli and Space received additional grants worth nearly $15,000 from the New England Foundation for the Arts for planning and touring. She also received a smaller grant from the Maine Arts Commission to support the project.

The grants allowed her to hire other artists to help build a much larger show, and put it on the road. “It’s such a blessing to be able to pay my collaborators fees that are in line with what they should be paid,” she said.

David R. White, artistic director and executive producer at the Yard on Martha’s Vineyard and the longtime former director at the influential Dance Theater Workshop in New York, said Juli excels at humor, which is an unusual element in a lot of dance. “Dance isn’t always funny. Humor is a hard thing to do in dance, unless you are Bill Irwin, the clown artist, or someone like that,” White said. “But Sara is viscerally funny. She’s a comic actress.”

She uses humor to impart a serious message. It was easy to laugh at “Tense Vagina,” but the piece explored an actual medical condition and a serious problem for many postpartum women, White said. “She falls into the some of the elite ranks of women comedians, who deal increasingly and very personally with these kind of conditions they encounter along their path. ‘Tense Vagina’ was hysterically funny at times and also very revelatory.”

“Burnt-Out Wife” is Juli’s most ambitious and theatrical work. She collaborated with a team of Maine artists: set designer Pamela Moulton, costume designer Carol Farrell, sound designer Ryan MacDonald, lighting designer Justin Moriarty, and dramaturg Michelle Mola. Moulton’s set is a monochromatic pink bathroom, and Space is painting itself pink to match the color theme.

Juli took Tim Ferrell’s comedy workshop and wrote 10 minutes of stand-up as part of “Burnt-Out Wife.” She also wrote a song with Sorcha Cribben-Merrill, “Only in the Bathtub,” which she will sing on stage in a tub. She calls it her Broadway number.

Singing is fairly new for Juli. She’s not a trained singer, but has slipped songs into her work for five years or so. It’s another example of her willingness to take chances on stage and her desire to push herself as an artist. “I love the texture of not being a trained singer,” she said. “I can carry a tune and I am fine. But is my voice fabulous? Absolutely not. I am more interested in the textural authenticity. Sometimes I actually sound not half-bad. Sometimes I miss the mark completely.”

If she takes chances with the vulnerable aspects of her storytelling, she feels like she’s on solid ground with people’s ability to relate to what she has to say. “Burnt-Out Wife” came out of a 10-year phase of not having time, space or energy to access her relationship. By the time she got around to making this work, Juli and her husband were functioning “quite separately,” she said, “side by side, cohabitating but not communicating or interacting in a deep way.”

She spoke to many peers as part of her research for “Burnt-Out Wife,” and learned that marriage means many things to many different people and people generally don’t talk about their bad marriages because it’s societal taboo. This show is about taking away the taboo and giving people space to talk, Juli said.

“If everything is not a fairy tale, we are taught it is wrong. How many times when you meet someone and you ask, ‘How are things?’ you hear, ‘Oh, things are fabulous. Just great.’ But is it really fabulous? That’s the go-to response. But where is the rule-breaking where you can actually say, ‘Actually, we just got into a really big fight the other night, and I would love a little feedback.’ I don’t find that is happening. Does it happen in your peer set? I don’t find it happening in mine.”

Juli and her husband had a pretty big fight after he saw a five-minute snippet of the work in progress at One Longfellow Square last October. Juli’s piece was part of a larger cabaret-style show.

When she met Ajemian in the lobby afterward, she knew she had crossed a line. He was embarrassed, hurt and angry. “He was livid – just livid beyond livid,” Juli said. She put the brakes on the show, and the couple took a long look at their marriage. Through conversation and counseling, Juli recognized that, while she wasn’t happy in her marriage, she also didn’t want a divorce. But she wasn’t sure what to do.

“Burnt-Out Wife” is about her marriage journey from happiness to disillusionment to working to make it work. “Burnt-Out Wife” began as a missive and “a real attack” on her husband, she said, but ultimately “the crux of the piece is about my experience. It’s not about my issues with him. It’s about taking responsibility for what you bring to the table in a long-term partnership and own what you’re in charge of. We naturally deflect to the other person – ‘You never do this.’ But turn it around. Are you doing this? Sara, are you doing that?”

When she turned the mirror on herself, the answer was most often no. “I am not putting in my 50 percent at all. Thirty percent? No. Maybe 20 percent. On a good day,” she said.

By sharing what’s bothering her and coming to terms with it in her authentic and, at times, shocking performances, her goal is to help other people facing similar quandaries – just as she tried to reach people struggling with money issues in “The Money Conversation,” reconciling the loss of a parent in “Death” or coming to terms with past promiscuity in “How to Forgive Yourself in Bed.”

Her aim, she said, “is to open up the dialogue outside the theater.”

Sara Juli and Chris Ajemian in a recent photo. Photo by Harriet Juli

Ajemian admits he had “a pretty strong reaction” to the five-minute segment he saw at One Longfellow Square a year ago. He hasn’t seen the show since, though his domestic routine involves living among the props and sharing space with an artist deeply immersed in the development and rehearsal process of a new solo theater piece. He hasn’t seen it, but there’s no escaping it.

He’s a former theater director, and he and Juli met during “The Money Conversation.” That was their first collaboration, and he was with her when she toured the world. Ajemian is now CEO of an international tutoring and education company. He is 45 and she is 41, and they have two kids. They moved to Falmouth five years ago from Brooklyn, on the advice of a friend from Maine and the positive impressions they got from a national magazine article extolling Falmouth as a great place to raise families. “We came for a visit and moved on a leap of faith,” Juli said.

Ajemian said he embraced the chance to talk about “Burnt-Out Wife” as part of the Friday night post-show therapy. He and his wife will meet on stage, with a counselor, to talk about the show. Juli was able to use some of her grant money to pay for an initial marriage counseling session as part of her research for and development of the piece. The couple finished the sessions on their own dime.

No one knows Juli’s work better over time, and no one is more inextricably tied to this piece than Ajemian. “The idea that I could be a part of a show that in many ways centers around a lot of the things she perceived about me and our marriage, it seemed like an awesome opportunity to go in that space with the audience and provide perspective, not just as the husband, but as a close collaborator,” he said. “I understand the aesthetic aspects of the work, as well as the content aspect of it.”

The hardest part about watching Juli perform at One Longfellow Square was hearing people laugh, he said. It felt like they were laughing at him and his marriage, but they really weren’t. They were laughing at Juli’s interpretation, filtered through the lens of a comedic performer. “In a world where media aesthetic manipulates narrative, that really hurt, because it wasn’t the truth,” he said. “There is more than one side to this story.”

The on-stage therapy gives him a chance to respond, to tell his side of the story. That is something Ajemian has become increasingly comfortable doing through counseling. They had just started counseling at the time of the Longfellow performance. “I was nowhere near as comfortable and at peace with myself or my marriage as I am now,” he said.

Another thing Ajemian took away from Juli’s performance at One Longfellow Square was how much his wife was hurting. That moment represented a breakthrough in their relationship, because it forced them first into a crisis and then into a crisis-resolution mode. They both worked to save their marriage.

“We talked about it and we took some time apart and then we came back together,” Juli said.

“I came back with, ‘I’m sorry.’ He came back with, ‘I am sorry, too.’ And I came back with, ‘I should have warned you,’ and he came back with, ‘Yes, you should have warned me – and I need to give you the space to make the art you want to make, and I need you to feel OK with taking risks, and I need you to make this piece knowing it might hurt my feelings. And you have the permission to do that.'”

And she thought, “Wow.”

Sara Juli in “Burnt-Out Wife,” presented by Space and Portland Ovations. Photo by Allen Baldwin, courtesy of Sara Juli

Comments are not available on this story.