Gibney Dance: Weed Heart
Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
September 7 – 10 & 14 – 17, 2016
“The life-force that moves through the roots of a dandelion,” reads the sign, “was thought to be the same life-force that moves through us.” The text is barely noticeable, printed on a slice of laminated paper and tucked into the pot of a scraggly plant. The fact that it is a quote from Porter Shimer’s book Secrets of the Native Americans is hidden beneath its soil. And yet this idea—that plants can tell us about humanity—is woven into every fiber of jill sigman/thinkdance’s latest work at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center.
Weed Heart is a tender and, at times, tough to bear tribute to objects and people who have been discarded or forgotten. Through an art installation, video messages, and movement, Sigman examines her own convictions about marginalized groups and how she relates to them. This type of project is not new for Sigman: for nearly twenty years, she and her collective have produced multi-media movement pieces about homelessness, commercialism, and other charged topics. Her latest work has the potential to seem simplistic; ultimately, though, she deftly weaves together these vital threads.
In the installation space, which sprawls across Gibney Dance’s second floor, Sigman lays out different swatches of rugs and cushions. One seems to be pulled from an office chair; another was once a fuzzy red pet pillow; a third could have been your grandmother’s multi-colored quilt. A halo of plants—some sprouting out of buckets, others out of protein powder jars—surrounds the seating area. Here, one can begin to sense Sigman’s appreciation for others’ disparate detritus. She has thoughtfully collected and arranged objects that would otherwise be destined for a garage sale or, more likely, a landfill.
And she does not simply breathe life back into these objects; she gives them new identities. Throughout the room and the first-floor studio in which she performs, she pairs inorganic objects—like a worn-out t-shirt with USA printed across the front—with organic plants. In one assemblage, a rusty pink bike houses more weeds and a thick branch. Sigman has wrapped a shell of a Budweiser can around one of the branch’s limbs; a faded blue and white piñata is also packed into the assemblage, and a handful of batteries hang from a pink string above it. There is something haunting in this display, which darkly bridges the divide between childhood and adulthood. But it is also beautiful: a child once owned and hopefully appreciated this bike, and now a new group of people can appreciate it—not for its functionality but for its value as art.
This notion—that what was once discarded, she now reclaims—extends to Sigman’s set design. The performance takes place in Studio A, a nook that is situated one floor below the gallery display; if the gallery were a garden, then the studio would be its roots. In the center of the room, Sigman has arranged three more pieces of work: a metal boat hanging from red strings; a low, swinging canvas; and a high, metal, circular cage. All have weeds sprouting from them. Sigman’s tribute to the forgotten is most apparent, though, in her performance, in which she draws movement and inspiration from Lenape Native Americans, civil rights leaders, and other groups that have had to rally for social and legal recognition.
When Sigman’s twenty-five or so patrons enter this space, she presents them each with a mug of mint tea that is, Sigman later reveals, steeped with foraged plants. But she formally introduces herself through a video message playing on a monitor that her collaborator Katrina De Wees holds. In it, Sigman shares a story. Her “stubborn, Jewish father” fell ill. She was working in Norway. He discouraged her from visiting him. She had been reading a book about talking to plants. And so, feeling helpless, she turned to a “big, gangly plant” for guidance. “So, maybe you could help me out,” she said to the plant. “Why?” it responded.
This talking head confessional sets an inquisitive tone for the evening. And although Sigman does not draw explicitly on national history or politics here, her use of a video confessional is charged: it may remind viewers of the “Sandy Speaks” confessionals from Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old black woman who died in police custody. In her videos, Bland addressed her feelings about race in America, her depression, and other topics that occupied—really, haunted—her thoughts.
Before Sigman begins to dance, she introduces another political strain to her performance through a Trojan helmet of twigs and brush. She wears this mane during the piece. Later, she reveals that it is a callback to headdresses that the Lenape, a Native American tribe, once wore. The tribe occupied the downtown space where Studio A now exists; in the 18th and early 19th centuries, European colonies and the U.S. government kicked them out of their homelands. By donning this Lenape headdress, Sigman seems to confront the Lenape tribe’s history—and, by extension, her own roots. She has no apparent blood ties to this banished group, but she feels bound to the tribe through space.
She also seems to acknowledge her privilege—and, perhaps, shame—here. In addition to the mane, she wears a mask throughout the performance: a large leaf over her face, secured in place with pink strings. She peels eye slits from her fibrous mask. She will, it seems, navigate the performance from the perspective of a plant. A plant is at once wise and weary, and she is perhaps too subjective, too green, to see the scope and significance of New York City’s history.
In terms of her movement vocabulary, Sigman also draws on political protests and tribal traditions. At the top of the evening, she stalks the perimeter of the performance space as buzzy, discordant music from Kristin Norderval escalates. Sigman brushes past audience members, who sit on the floor, against the studio walls. The weed displays sway and her seated audience feels the vibrations of each stomp. Then, she breaks into a march and pumps her right fist. These movements evoke the raised fists and determined steps of a protester or striker; through them, she conveys a sense of urgency. And as she skips, jigs, and even mimes a heated conversation (“Are you looking at me?” she seems to gesture, flicking her hands towards her chest. “Try me.”), she is ever in control.
This continues to be the case when she slips from this sequence into a more subdued shuffle around the room. As the studio’s lights shift to blue and the music stops, Sigman drops to the floor and her chest rises and falls. She’s no longer protesting; instead, she’s processing. But one cannot continue to simply think amidst Norderval’s score, which, at once caustic and captivating, sounds like chains rattling or a knife being sharpened. So, Sigman acts. She rises and rears her head. She moves like a beast roused from slumber or, perhaps, a grieving human pulled away from a last goodbye.
As the piece continues, Sigman becomes more and more feral in her movement, and she even lets out a guttural wail. Does she, like the plant, really ask “Why?” She’s running, pumping her arms and slapping her chest. She’s testifying. And then, again, both Sigman and the music sputter to a stop, and Sigman freezes in a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture. The image is striking; in part, because Sigman, a white woman, is unlikely to strike it outside of a performance space. But she does not evidently claim the experience of a black American here. Instead, she seems to grapple with how grave this gesture can be.
In another video message, Sigman speaks to these elements of her choreography. She points out the patch of nearby land that was once designated for the colonial poor, the cast-off Lenape people, and the African burial ground under our feet, where the corpses of 200,000 people rest largely unacknowledged. As she conveys first through dance, now through dialogue, these facts disturb her. And yet even more disorienting for her is her privilege: if she desires, she could go about her daily life relatively untouched and unburdened by this history. But she does, she states, want to live like this. “So,” she asks, “what happens now? What do we do? How do we remember?”
Her answer is that we turn to the plants. She relays to us a message that a Paulownia tree shared with her: “Everything that has been shoved down will come up again in some way.” Sigman wants us to bear witness to what once stood where we now see chain stores and corporate offices—and to the plants that have survived this transition. If we do so, these stories stand a better chance of re-emerging.
“Do you want to see it?” she asks us, referring to the Paulownia tree. “I’m totally serious.” It is located around the corner from the studio, and its branches, Sigman explains, reach the graves that go otherwise untouched. She also reveals that she used one of its leaves for her performance mask; in a sense, she experienced the evening through the eyes of this tree. As an audience, we walk with her, outside of Gibney Dance and around the block. Norderval sings a piercing operatic dirge as we approach the parking lot. Her rich, resonant voice carries towards City Hall and passing cars that have their windows propped open. When we arrive at the site, Sigman pulls out a jug of water and pours some on the trees. It has the makings of a climactic, ethereal moment: the whole group huddled together for this tribute.
Through Weed Heart, Sigman clearly identifies instances of injustice. She shows us a Black Lives Matter fist-pump and a Lenape tribal dance, and she shares facts about displacement and privilege. If her performance lacks anything, it is an exploration of how these historical and present-day slights burrow into people’s minds and actions: she does not dig through what motivates some people’s deep-rooted disregard for the lives of others, and does not, in turn, focus on how oppressed people deal valiantly with repeated threats to their life-force.
But perhaps this apparent oversight is part of her message, too. The plants may remind us that we need a conversation. In order to get to the roots of these issues, though, not to mention their potential remedies, we’ll have to speak to each other.
ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.