Dance Review: “Naughty Bits” — Pushing Back on a Culture of Sexual Abuse

By Jessica Lockhart

Sara Juli has proven herself to be a master of using humor to examine subjects that are uncomfortable and not at all comic. 

Naughty Bits, a dance-play written and performed by Sara Juli. At Hill Arts, Portland, Maine.

Sara Juli in a scene from Naughty Bits. Photo: Nick Pierce

Performance artist Sara Juli cannot stop creating works that examine taboo subjects. She savors topics that are deemed by polite society to be too sensitive to talk about — material not fit for a public theatrical production. Her last 2 dance theater pieces were Burnt-Out Wife and Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis: the first unraveled a marriage that was going to hell and the second looked at her sexual dysfunction after child birth. Following these shows, the challenge for such an iconoclastic artist was clear: how does she top what she had done before? Her response was Naughty Bits, which dramatizes the lingering aftershocks of sexual abuse.

Juli has proven herself to be a master of using humor to examine subjects that are uncomfortable and not at all comic. Here she unpacks the long-lasting damage done by trauma. Naughty Bits was inspired by two sexual abuse episodes that affected her psychological development: one occurred when she was a child, the other when she was a college student. In this 50-minute long performance, Juli explores the ways that the abuse shaped her, negatively, over the past 25 years. She is still dealing with the debilitating mental consequences, yet her approach is both light and dark — the audience finds itself laughing out loud and then gasping, sometimes crying tears of sorrow.

A scene from Sara Juli in a scene from Naughty Bits. Photo: Nick Pierce

The show opens with a text written on the backdrop of the stage: “Dear Diary, I am eight years old, and I like to play in my bedroom and sing and dance.” Juli steps on stage and dances to “She’s a Maniac” from the film Flashdance. She’s an eight-year kid, just having fun. The text then tells us that she had been experimenting with generating sexual pleasure from her bedroom pillows. This innocent excursion into sensuality changes when ‘Dear Diary’ reveals that she was sexually abused when she was nine. The act transformed her from being someone who was accepting to a person who was relentlessly self-critical.

Onstage, Juli shows us notes she wrote, as a skeptical adult, while rereading the dairy. She berates the little girl’s writing style, finding fault with her younger self. She calls re-reading her diary in this way the ‘Wobbly Bits.’ Juli then lists the other problems that afflict sexually abused people as well as herself. You have pain, so you self-medicate. You need faith, but it turns into melancholy and then anger. You have vices, numbness, and indifference. These conditions are labeled the “Forgotten Bits.’

Throughout, Juli shows herself to be a master of vocal timing and wordplay. For example, she will slowly say a word as she dances out a responsive gesture, and then repeat the word and add another movement. We soon can’t help but guess what the sentence will tell us once it is completed. “Take, take a, take a few, take a few minutes, take a few minutes before” — we are riveted to learn where this instruction is going to lead. Juli also speaks directly to viewers, making them part of the conversation: “Okay, again! One more time? How about now? Do you understand?” She answered herself by slowly revealing yet another painful experience.

The humorous sections of the show were called “Funny Bits.” Here, Juli sings popular songs whose lyrics are perfect anthems for a culture that is indifferent to sexual abuse: “Don’t you want me baby,” “Take me home tonight,” “I’m still standing,” and “I gotta have faith.” At its conclusion, Naughty Bits can’t be characterized as optimistic or pessimistic; Juli tells us that she struggled to find the proper balance for the end of the show. She had an uplifting grand finale planned — but it really wasn’t warranted. For me, the performer came upon an effective, deeply emotional, way to wrap things up. Invite the audience to sing a song — with her — that evokes the power of healing. The karaoke lyrics appeared, and we joined Juli as she belted out the tune.

Naughty Bits is a sensitive exploration of sexual abuse and how it can damage a person for life. It is particularly valuable now, given that former President Trump’s ‘hush money’ trial has become omnipresent news fodder. The lesson young and old should take from this highly publicized legal proceeding is that it is not permissible to do what you want to whomever you want — just because you think you are powerful enough to get away with it. Juli is not staying silent about the lasting injury that can be done. Kudos to her for pushing back.

Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award-winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.

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