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Portrait of an Artist

Jill Sigman

By Christine S. An, Contributing Writer

Jill Sigman is the Artistic Director of the dance company jill sigman/ thinkdance, which she founded after completing her PhD in Philosophy at Princeton. Known for her provocative and eclectic style, she has performed in a wide variety of nontraditional spaces, including dilapidated industrial buildings, drained swimming pools, and a fence over a toxic canal. This past week she visited Harvard to lead a workshop entitled “Body, Movement, and Gender: Moving and Seeing” and give the keynote performance at “Educational Bodies: The Performance of Gender and Sexuality in Academia,” a conference sponsored by the Committee on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

The Harvard Crimson: Can you tell me about your performance at Harvard this weekend?

Jill Sigman: I was invited by the organizers to give a keynote performance, which is an interesting concept, because usually a keynote is a lecture. It’s really exciting for them to think about a performance as a keynote contribution that would be somehow like a center point that people could see and respond to as part of this [conference’s] exploration.

THC: For how long have you been dancing?

JS: I’ve been dancing for over 30 years. I was trained in classical ballet for about 12 years. I trained at the Joffrey Ballet and the Ballet Center of Brooklyn, and then I started studying modern dance in college. And I’ve been sort of migrating into more experimental forms of dance ever since then. And I feel like I still draw upon the kind of discipline and the certain features of those forms, of those dance genres, but it’s not always recognizable in the work because I’m not using those dance vocabularies any more. But I still very much value those traditions.

THC: How has your approach to dance changed over the years?

JS: The way in which I was trained is to look at a body as one that executes a dance language, and I still use it in that way, but I’m also interested in how a body can be a material, kind of the way a visual artist would use other objects and physical materials.

THC: In what other ways have you deviated from the classical approach to dance?

JS: Well, as the work has gone on, my concept of what a dance is has grown broader, so that instead of just thinking that it’s bound to just movement and that it doesn’t matter where we put it, I’ve become more thoughtful about placing dance and creating environments for dances. And, for me, those aspects are just as much part of the meaning of the work. They contribute to the meaning as much as the movement does.

THC: Can you tell me more about your conception of the artist in contemporary society? What are some particular issues you bring to attention with your work?

JS: I’ve been working a lot to prod people to ask questions about what’s happening around them. I like to say I’m using the body as a medium to ask questions. Basically I want to people to think, and I don’t really care what they think as much as that they do think.

Lately some of my work has dealt with issues around the environment, and the way that we’re producing a tremendous amount of waste that we can’t manage and that waste is having an effect on the planet. So, those are some of the issues. But I think I see the artist as a kind of lightning rod, kind of getting a vibe of what’s happening out there, and then saying to people, hey, let’s look at this. I’m giving them a way to look at it and to channel their responses and their emotions in a setting that is somehow off the map. I’m creating this visual, spatial place where they can think about things and feel things and see things that they might not have otherwise experienced.

THC: What is something that you would encourage students to explore while moving their bodies in their everyday lives? Is there any kind of awareness or particular attention to bodily movement you believe to be worthy of more consideration?

JS: I think how we move is completely integral to the identities we construct and the way we relate to things in the world. I think it’s very valuable for people to have some sort of practice of awareness and to kind of cultivate an awareness of what is your body, who is your body, what is it doing, what is it feeding you, what is it telling you so that we hear those things more readily, so that it’s not about subverting the body, but letting yourself be more aware of what the body can tell.

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