Jill Sigman is founder and director of jill sigman/thinkdance, an intersection of dance, theater and installation art. I approached Jill with the notion of healing, minus the spiritual, and she immediately grasped its openness. She felt that not everyone who is spiritual is actively engaged in healing, and that not everyone who is engaged in healing is actively spiritual. She liked that openness.
Hut #6, jill sigman/thinkdance, The Norwegian Opera House, Oslo, 2011. Photo credit: Elisabeth F. Lund
EP: What is your professional background?
JS: I was first trained in classical ballet, followed by modern dance in college. Along the way, I also fell in love with philosophy and eventually received a Ph.D. from Princeton University, continuing to dance and choreograph throughout my research.
EP: How did that influence your movement practice?
JS: Philosophy completely changed what dance became for me. Reading Nietzsche changed my understanding of dance. It went from trying to be good and pretty to being embodied in the real world. And that was revolutionary—that dance was not the pursuit of technique in a vacuum, where you check your identity at the door; that dance has magical power, the power to transform. And transformation leads to healing. I am currently an Artist in Residence at Wesleyan University where they are envisioning new roles for artists, such as teaching in other disciplines. I am co-teaching with an anthropologist. We have created a course entitled Ritual, Health and Healing.
EP: How would you define your mature practice?
JS: I have an allergy to labels and definitions—making things theoretical, eliminating openness. I love things that are not defined by traditional categories. They reveal what is there, in the in-between spaces, where people thought there was nothing. I orchestrate experiences for people by generating movement, actions that change the energy of a space.
EP: Why is that necessary?
JS: We are living at a very particular time in our culture, when things are falling apart—socially, economically, politically. We are living in an active wound. People who were previously able to function in a situation that was stable are suddenly unable to deal when faced with social collapse. Their unresolved inner dramas are coming through their seams. I see a need to address an impoverishment of spirit.
EP: Most interviewers ask about work content. But what is the secret behind your work?
JS: My art is about using the body as a medium to think and feel. That is the socially acceptable “secular” translation of what I do. Yet I think that, at some level, all my work is about trying to remember. I am trying to remember when connective ritual was part of society, when all this mattered. I want to reinvent a past that is lost and yet has somehow intuitively become my current way of working, as well as my hope for the future. I feel like an amnesia patient. I come from an immigrant Jewish family that dealt with loss by cutting connections. I inherited the ability to do that, the American way. But there is no such self-sufficiency. The role of my work is to connect people—to create performance as connective tissue. And to ask them to see what has been forgotten, denied, erased—what remains unseen.
EP: What is the question no one asks?
JS: “What does your work have to do with conjuring?” When things like conjuring, remembering and healing are seen as quietly embedded in the texture of our world and not regarded as New Age, supernatural or paranormal, then, people will recognize the need to ask that.
EP: What would the achievement of your vision look like?
JS: I think of five year-olds and their ability to be fully present, able to receive things: to hear, smell and really see things. There would be a way of living with what is difficult that is not covered by screens, with guardedness and denial, that would lead to change, to change the world, the future of the world.
EP: Who is your audience?
JS: My audience is everyone who has a slight tear in their armor. I recently served tea as part of a performance in the lobby of the Norwegian Opera House. Some people slowed down, stopped and sat down. They were curious and vulnerable; they had a need for connection.
EP: Who are your peers?
JS: People like you are my peers! People who are trained in various disciplines and are working inside the cracks. I see myself as part of the dance world but, increasingly, I have been engaging in a multitude of ways with the social reality. My dance became a physical manifestation of that. For a year and a half I went off the [dance] map and looked to see who affiliated with me. And all sorts of people, new peers, came out of the woodwork because we shared the same values: housing advocates, composting educators, and visual artists. I am casting a new piece right now. I seek people who want to go on a journey starting with shared memories, able to form a micro-community, with a great stomach for living with uncertainty, willing to help form a re-imagined future.
EP: So, what are you currently working on?
JS: I have been building huts made of trash. They are sculptures, stages, and dwellings. They are containers for experiences to happen in them. They can be engaged in different ways, depending on the sites and the people. I build them within institutions and while doing so I befriend the staff, the guards and maintenance crew. Some of these workers are often recent immigrants. Officially, I perform rituals and activities related to the site, such as dancing, planting, and cooking with food from local dumpster diving. I follow all this with public conversations. Unofficially, undercover connections of all kinds are happening between people who would normally not speak to each other. I hope that those connections remain after I leave.
EP: What are you reading right now?
JS: I am reading a lot about shamanism—Taussig, Some, Desjarlais. I am wondering about the perils of revealing, testifying, to what is unseen and unsaid, so as not to make oneself another casualty of that. How can one keep performing that role?
EP: How do you recover after giving?
JS: I have to wait for something within me to come back into being. There is little to do but to be quiet. It is like being an animal. After it is shaken, it must be still indefinitely. I become very still for a long time. I lie on the floor of my studio a lot. Currently, I am obsessed with tea, with the space, the ritual and the quiet of tea. I serve tea to my class. The college students have a very hard time quieting down. I bring them stillness.