JILL SIGMAN with Siobhan Burke

Jill Sigman likes to joke that plants are temperamental collaborators. “I used to think it was hard working with dancers. But plants? They’re very capricious and fragile. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Sigman’s new work, last days/first field, at the Invisible Dog Art Center May 7–9, she and her seven performers, after dancing feverishly for an hour, will lay down a tarp, cover it with soil, and plant dozens of seedlings onstage—“100 to 125 plants per night, depending on how our crop grows,” Sigman said, three weeks before opening night. Then they’ll invite us to lounge, talk, and drink tea in the makeshift field, ending the evening as we ponder the new beginning at our feet.

A rumination on what she calls “a world that’s heating up,” last days stems from Sigman’s enterprising Hut Project, an ongoing series of site-specific dwelling-installations that she masterfully constructs from discarded materials (including, sometimes, trash from the streets outside her Bushwick studio). For the most recent, Hut #8, she repurposed 2,845 plastic bottles. The huts serve as gathering places, theatrical stages, and art objects in themselves—but mostly, as sites for reflection on our patterns of consumption, our warming climate, and what Sigman sometimes calls our “crash course” as a species, a course that she urges us to re-route.

At a rehearsal of last days/first field in April, you could see Sigman teasing out similar themes: apocalypse, regeneration, our relationship to nature. Like much of her work since 1998, when she established her company jill sigman/thinkdance, (the same year she earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton), the piece confronts sobering issues through whimsical means, just obliquely enough to keep us wondering: What’s going on here? And what can we do about it?

Jill Sigman’s last days/first field. Irene Hsi, Donna Costello, and others. By Rafael Gamo, courtesy jill sigman/thinkdance.

Siobhan Burke (Rail): Last summer I met up with you and the dancers at Added Value’s farm in Red Hook. We spent the morning weeding an arugula bed. And that was just the beginning of your volunteer work on urban farms as research for the piece. How did that agricultural work inform your time in the studio?

Jill Sigman: It’s part of an even larger desire to craft a number of experiences for the dancers. Some of it has been volunteering on farms, but also going out into parks and green spaces, even going to farm stands, buying food, cooking together.

I have this desire to go out into the world and see what’s happening: experience things physically, meet people who are working in things like urban agriculture, permaculture, sustainable farming—talk to them, see what they do, do things with them. And then come back into the studio and say in movement, This is what it feels like out there. This is what we’ve been experiencing by checking out the world and where it is.

Some of that translates very directly into movement. We were digging sweet potatoes, so we can go back into the studio and use that physical feeling. But some of it is much more indirect or esoteric: What is the feeling of a world that’s heating up, where there are all sorts of problems environmentally—in terms of our food, energy, climate—and how do we channel that feeling into our kinesthetic expression? I’m interested in being a kind of barometer or antenna.

Rail: But you picked up some specific techniques, too?

Sigman: We went to a place on Shelter Island, Sylvester Manor—a former slave plantation on Long Island, which is now an educational farm. They have a harvest festival every year, and they introduced us to this concept of “hive mind,” where everyone works together on something. We know the common goals, but we don’t have specific tasks. We just know we have to clear the basil. It’s interesting how people organize themselves, and the basil gets cleared. There were all these really beautiful movement similarities—things that were almost unison, but not quite, that choreographically I really liked. It became an interesting way of creating an improv score—creating choreographic structure without telling people exactly how to move around.

Rail: There’s a lot of frenetic activity in the piece, a sense of heating up, as you said. But then there’s Devika Wickremesinghe, who walks very, very slowly around the perimeter of the space. It’s like she’s marking time on a much larger scale.

Sigman: Like geological time.

Rail: Exactly. Can you talk about her role?

Sigman: It’s similar to what I did last June in Greenpoint as part of Hut #7, in which I walked with a light around the parking lot. I was interested in how I could take that experience further, layer it with something more ornate. How could I give people a sense of totally different tempos, different scales, like glacial time versus the micro-time of our petty day-to-day existence, the way we’re responding to a million things in one moment?

I should mention that Devika will be bringing in the plants. So it’s also this slow trek to that point. I had to figure out: How are these plants going to get into the space, and how do I make that a meaningful part of the piece? There’s a very long evolution that gets us to that point of planting.

Rail: What made you want to plant a field onstage?

Sigman: I’ve been thinking about this idea of a practice. What is it to have a practice? In my case, I have a movement practice. But we’re in a society where this notion of practice is rapidly disintegrating, with this idea that everything should be instantaneous, everything is a one-time thing—the glamour of the one-time thing.

Jill Sigman’s last days/first field. Corinne Cappelletti, Irene Hsi. By Rafael Gamo, courtesy jill sigman/thinkdance.

I realized that, first of all, farmers have a practice. We go to these farms and we see, Oh! You do what we do, it’s just that you plant food. And not just farmers but other people I’ve been meeting through my work on the huts: permaculture practitioners, compost educators, environmental communicators, anthropologists. Their work is so methodical, so focused, careful, and quiet. In many cases the general public doesn’t even know they’re there doing what they do.

I feel like planting is this way of embodying that kind of work, embodying an approach to change that is slow and methodical and happens in these tiny steps. Just putting that out there for an audience is a reminder of how we can go forward, how in the face of all the craziness, all the things that seem insurmountable, we can start to approach change in a way that might be unglamorous, but is very genuine, very fine-grained. Someone else could give a lecture about sustainable farming, but I’d rather plant for people and have them witness that. I think that’s a way to affect their guts more than their minds.

Rail: What about that article you have there, “Ritual is Essential?”

Sigman: Right. [Pages through stack of papers.] I can explain these intellectual reasons for the planting, but part of me was still mystified. Like, why is it that I want so much to plant a field in a performance space? What’s behind this desire?

And then I found this article by Dolores LaChapelle. She was a proponent of what is called deep ecology, and she wrote this nice, tiny piece, about how ritual is this connective tissue for us, especially with regard to any kind of environmental change. She says it’s not enough to just go out in nature. Ritual is what helps people feel their connection to a site, to each other, to the natural world. It’s like the glue that we need to live sustainably and remember that feeling of respect for the environment.

So that was interesting. But then she writes about a particular ritual in Siena, Italy, the Palio, which happens in the summer. As part of the Palio—essentially a very grand horse race—people from the town bring this yellow earth from the surrounding countryside into the town square. They just physically cart in all this dirt and put it in the middle of the town, and they fill the square as a reminder of their connection to their surroundings and to nature. And I was like, That’s it! That’s what I’m trying to do.

She writes about this wonderful expression in Siena. Throughout the year, if anyone is depressed, they say, “Oh, don’t be sad. Soon the earth will be in the square.” I showed this to the dancers, and we agreed that this is exactly what we’re doing: soon we will do our performance, and the earth will be in the square.

Rail: Do you think of the dancers as inhabiting a particular time or place? To me, there’s something both prehistoric and apocalyptic about the piece—like they could be the first people on Earth or the last survivors.

Sigman: I love that observation, that it could be the really distant past or the future. I kind of think of it that way too. I don’t feel like it has to be one or the other. When I was deciding what we would plant, I talked to a number of farmers and other people who work with plants. I asked them, “What would you plant if you were going to plant the last field on Earth? And what would you plant if we were starting all over again, with the first field on Earth?” There were many contenders. From flowers—many people wanted to plant flowers as the last field, which is really beautiful—to beans, corn, tomatoes. All different answers.

Rail: And?

Sigman: We decided on kale and basil.

Rail: When we talked in 2011, before your show at the 92nd Street Y, you said something about how dancers and choreographers are bad capitalists, because it takes so much labor for very little material return. I think about that a lot.

Sigman: It’s the opposite of good consumer production.

Rail: So much time, and then you have this thing that doesn’t last.

Sigman: It’s not replicable. It’s barely marketable. And it’s gone immediately.

Rail: It lasts from a Tuesday to a Thursday.

Sigman: So why do it?

Rail: Well, yeah.

Jill Sigman’s last days/first field. Irene Hsi and Hadar Ahuvia. By Rafael Gamo, courtesy jill sigman/thinkdance.

Sigman: I ask myself that too. We’re in an economic climate that gets harder and harder. This ephemeral thing seems more insane every year. But I feel like it can have an impact on people that other modes of communication can’t—that writing, billboards, signage, commercials, text messages, all these forms of media messaging can’t have. A communal experience of a live performance can create change. It’s micro-change. It doesn’t happen in everyone, and that’s fine. But there can be this sense of a gestalt shift or transformation when people have a live experience. The kinesthetic, the tactile, the sensual are ways to mediate and amplify that experience, to make it effective, and sitting together in a dark room—going through something with other people—is really different from looking at a tiny video window on your laptop at home while three other things are happening around you.

Rail: Do you ever see the impact that your pieces have, or is it not so obvious?

Sigman: The effect is glacial. You occasionally get a situation where someone is like, Wow, now I’m going to compost! But there are all sorts of other changes that we can’t track. Like someone sees something, and it sensitizes them or gives them an emotional response so they’re not as hardened to a certain issue. It’s a matter of many, many, many little touches adding up before people begin to change their actions. So how can you as an artist create a little opening? Once people start to see something differently, there’s an option to do something differently. But you can’t take the option if you don’t see it.

We can’t play for all or nothing. We can’t say, If I don’t have this very obvious return rate, then it’s not worth doing. Because then we’d never begin all sorts of enterprises that do lead to change. That’s what I see with the farmers and other people that I’ve been telling you about, whose work is so long-term. They don’t sit there at the beginning wondering, Will I get a crop? And will that crop make me famous? And will people love my garlic? And will I become the garlic capital of the northeast? No, they just plant their garlic. And over time it adds up.

It’s a practice. If you can just engage in the practice, you can let it take you to wherever it’s going to take you to, have whatever effects it can have.

Rail: What haven’t we talked about?

Sigman: There are seven amazing dancers in this project: Hadar Ahuvia, Corinne Cappelletti, Donna Costello, Sally Hess, Irene Hsi, Paloma McGregor, and Devika. They’ve been committed, physically and intellectually, in ways that go beyond what I think is the norm these days. I’m so appreciative. I think that who they are creatively and intellectually makes us a learning community, in a way that gives the piece deeper roots—so we’re not just a bunch of people churning out a product. It’s really about a process.


Siobhan Burke

SIOBHAN BURKE writes for the New York Times and Dance Magazine. She teaches at Barnard College.