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Brief Encounter With ... The Money Conversation's Sara Juli

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Chelsea Theatre's annual Sacred season has become a go-to showcase for new developments in international performance art. Following last year's collaboration with brut in Vienna, the theatre has now teamed up with New York's PS122 to present the best US shows on the block, including Sara Juli's The Money Conversation.

Four years ago, this native New Yorker decided to let go of her money issues by letting go of her money. Juli withdrew $5000 - her entire life savings - and created a live-art show in which she gives it away to her audience. Ahead of next week's UK premiere, Juli speaks to us from her Brooklyn home about dollars, dance and risk-taking.

What prompted this piece?

The initial seed came out of a conversation I had with my boyfriend, now my husband. We were talking about getting married and inevitably it turned to money, something you tend not to discuss early on in the relationship. Every time we spoke about our financial goals, how we were going to combine our finances, I got so tense, I broke out in sweats. I was in my late 20s getting hot flushes! In essence, we were having the money conversation and it brought so much emotion out in me.

So you decided to turn it into a show?

Yes, that became the impetus to make a dance about it. To take the issues that were aggravating me and bring them to the fore to help me move past them. No issue is unique to me. Money stresses pretty much everyone out and the universal emotions I was going through identified a phase in my life. Millions of other people go through them too and it seemed a good topic. A dance about money.

But giving away your life savings - that was quite a risk.

I thought: how can I make myself the most uncomfortable I can in my performance? By cashing out my entire savings account and bringing them to the stage. Over the course of an hour, I creatively give it away - using text, movement, dance and humour. And then I bow and leave. The audience have to decide whether to keep them or give it back. I wanted to find out what it would mean if people took away my entire safety net. The conclusion I came to is that while I'd be quite broke, I'd still be waking up the next day as an artist. I'd wake up and have my boyfriend, my job. I would figure it out. I offer it to people to release myself of the burden.

And did/do people take the money?

They do! Some people are inspired. Some are angry. Some people take it, then give it back. They are less responding to me as a performer. They're more responding to the money. It's like its own character. When you bring that much hard cash to the stage - $20, $50, $100 bills and when the audience see that much money in front of them, it can't fail to raise emotions.

You studied anthropology as well as dance. Is this a continuation of your studies?

Absolutely. It's the study of people. I'm in the moment, reading the audience and feeding off them just as much as they're watching me. When I was rehearsing the show, it felt totally flat. It lives and dies by the audience. It's a community piece, a collective piece, above all a dialogue. And the money's the star. I just come by to poke, manipulate and push people's buttons a bit to elicit responses. It's a psychological experiment. But it's also a lot of fun.

Has it taken on more meaning since the recession?

What's interesting is that I made this piece at a very simple time for me and it has developed organically as I've performed it about the world. What started out as a personal show has taken on a political context. A white woman from New York City performing with all this cold hard cash? I didn't know how big it would get. I've been touring it for four years, literally around the world. And it's been amazing to see how the world sees it; how the piece is received internationally and nationally. The conversations we've had have differed massively from country to country.

In what ways?

One example that springs to mind. I performed it in Holland where they're big into the environment - reusing and recycling and second hand. When I asked what $40 meant to them, they said a second hand computer, a leather coat from the thrift store or a bike they'd borrowed. There's this nice recycling, reusing mentality. In New York not a single person said anything old. It was all a brand new laptop, an iPod. It made me realise how commercially driven New York, or the US as a whole, is versus Holland.

Four years is a long time. Do you even get bored of it?

No, I absolutely love it - I love to perform. I'm home. It's where I belong and where I'm supposed to be. Even though I have been successfully touring it for four years, it' stilll so sacred for me and such an honour to perform. There is no fourth wall. I share a space with the audience. We talk together through out the entire piece and that never gets old. It's always a different, interesting cultural, social conversation. I feel so blessed it's been so well received.

Risk is one of the themes of this year's Sacred. How important is risk to performance art?

This risk has been very successful for me. And what I have received in return is immeasurable. A career and livelihood as a performance artist. By risking everything I had, I got everything I ever wanted. For me it paid off. But I didn't realise that it would and it wasn't my intention. I didn't try to create a piece that had a hook to it. So no, I don't believe, perfomance art has to have an element of risk. There are shows considered performance art that are just beautiful pieces of art and not about the message at all.

What else have you been working on?

I did another show at PS122 called Death during my pregnancy. It seemed the right topic after money. I'd recently lost my father to cancer and I liked the dichotomy of creating this piece about death while I was six months pregnant. And quite big! The cycle of life and all that. Then I had the baby and I'm now ensconced with being a new mom to Hannah. I like that Death was a performance piece that lived in that moment. It was beautiful and now the show itself is dead.

The Money Conversation runs at Chelsea Theatre on 16 and 17 November 2010. The Sacred: US Radical season runs until 20 November 2010.


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