Jill Sigman at The Invisible Dog
Jill Sigman can’t really go anywhere, it seems, without being described as the choreographer with a PhD in Philosophy. It’s not an epithet she seeks to shed—her company is called thinkdance. And though she abandoned her career as analytic philosopher after completing her dissertation, her involvement in both disciplines grew, she says, from the same kernel of desire: “Thinking about a way to live.”
Sigman’s latest work, last days/first field, will premiere May 7-9 at Invisible Dog Theater in Brooklyn; in it Sigman continues to find ways to connect dance to the ways we live outside the theater. The piece, which involves the real-time planting of a field of seedlings on the floor of the stage, follows on the heels of The Hut Project, a multi-year endeavor involving a series of structures built from discarded and repurposed material. These were then used as catalysts for site-specific performance, conversation, artistic collaboration, and communal meals in Troy, New York; Bushwick; and Oslo, Norway; among other places.
After years of site-specific work, says Sigman, “It feels like the most radical thing I can do is a piece for a theater.” “I missed people all being together in a dark room,” she says. Continuing her investigation of sustainability through guided experiences of shared practice, she plans to utilize the intensified focus required for an evening-length piece of dance—as opposed to the few minutes one can spend wandering in and out of an installation. After an hour of dancing, the planting of the field will act as a kind of durational performance. Sigman’s version of durational performance is a nurturing one; the long moment of watching dancers plant will culminate (in traditional Sigman fashion) with tea. “I just like serving people,” she told me.
In Sigman’s mini-documentary about The Hut Project shot shortly after Hut #5, one audience-member is captured describing the “beautiful communal moment”, when Sigman invited her audience inside the hut and served them a salad made of vegetables she had grown there. The hushed, private experience of theater-viewing gently swelled to include the patter of conversation; a satisfying, gently-edifying kind of expanding of art into a practice of living. At the end of last days/first field, the audience will again be invited to dine. Sigman chose two crops, kale and basil, to raise with her dancers as part of the rehearsal process.
Sigman is adamant about the work not being “a commercial for urban agriculture,” but the show tantalizes with the thought of being able to opt-out of the busy present into something better—a time in which we slow down, grow more deliberate, and eat well. Sigman says she hopes to impart a feeling of affection for place, and perhaps trust in place, as well. Inspired by the work of Wendell Berry, agriculture, like dance, is for Sigman an act of placing faith in gradual accrual. Visually, the green of the seedlings will amass until the stage is filled with a new color; meanwhile, viewers have the chance to be bored, to be moved, or to wonder—how do we move forward with care?
Sigman also calls the work “apocalyptic.” The end of the show will be “this post-apocalyptic tea party occupy moment,” she says, continuing, “My work is a rehearsal for the future. We’re on a crash-course.” Despite her sense of foreboding, last days/first field feels more like an homage to a potential future than a eulogy for a lost one. Perhaps this is because last days/first field engages extensively with the current field of those working for ecological change. Sigman’s rehearsal process incorporated input from urban farmers, permaculture practitioners, a geologist, and gardeners. She asked each: “If you were planting the last field, what would you plant? If you were planting the first field, what would you plant?”
Answers, she said, ranged from “flowers!” to suggestions of practical crops that would enhance the soil’s nitrogen content, to “Okra, because I like okra.” There’s something fantastical and whimsical to Sigman’s choreographic practice that feels especially exemplary of the reasons she prefers dance over philosophy. It’s not just the somatic over the intellectual. “I didn’t want to play analytic games about how language functions,” she says. “Philosophy started as thinking about a way to live and evolved into a professional form, the way everything does”—dance included.
But this doesn’t mean Sigman doesn’t want to argue something. “I’m a choreographer. That’s what I do,” she states emphatically—a statement she often repeats, as though reinforcing the main thrust of an argument. “I stick my finger up in the air and then translate that feeling into movement.”
Because, she points out wisely, “people don’t know what they believe, physically.” In other words, dance circumvents not only what a philosopher could argue, but the position an audience or interlocutor could take in verbal defense. Sigman’s dance pushes, gently, for a somatic route towards a better life, but also maybe better philosophy. With dance, says Sigman, “You get in the back door.”