From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, February 17, 1997

Dancer, philosopher lives in two worlds

By Sally Freedman

Graduate student Jill Sigman traveled to Amsterdam in November to perform in the Annual International Yiddish Festival. She danced a solo piece of her own choreography, "Embers," and another called "Mother's Tongue/I Love You," with choreographer Ze'eva Cohen, professor in the Humanities Council and Theater and Dance.

Sigman is a fifth year PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department. So what is she doing on stage?

"I can't not be dancing," she says. "It's the way I explore many things that are important to me."

Art answers essential questions for Sigman. That's why she's a dancer. But how does it happen?

"That's what I want to know," she says. "Why is dance, why is art so compelling?"

That's a matter of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, how we perceive and understand what we perceive and understand. And that's why she's a philosopher.

Sigman began dancing when she was seven, studying classical ballet. Cohen first made her acquaintance when she applied to Princeton as an undergraduate: The admission office sent her audition tape to the Program in Theater and Dance. "She was wearing pink, or blue--the prima ballerina, with the corps de ballet standing around. She was just cute, super cute," Cohen laughs. "About as far as you can get from the tough-minded, self-questioning young woman of today."

At Princeton Sigman discovered modern dance and found it "liberating," she says. She also discovered philosophy and won the department's McCosh Prize for the best AB philosophy thesis when she graduated in 1989 as a philosophy major.

After graduation she spent a year in art conservation, restoring tapestries at the Church of St. John the Divine in New York. She won a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities in 1989 and began graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, but she transferred back to Princeton in 1992 because she found the department offered more freedom to structure an independent program.

In 1993 she precepted in Art, Ethics and Aesthetics. In 1994-95 she spent a year in Leuven, Belgium on a fellowship from the Belgian American Education Foundation, studying a 15th-century altarpiece. In 1996 she took her general exams and precepted in Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology, and last fall she won a Whiting Dissertation Fellowship.

All the while, she continued to dance and to choreograph.

Accountable to the work

"Embers," for instance, is a piece she created in 1994.

"I was thinking," she recalls, "about writing a paper on Emil Fackenheim, who (taking his cue from Adorno) said that after the Holocaust, philosophy is 'no longer possible.' I got involved in making the dance and never did write the paper. The dance itself got me to where I wanted to be in considering some of the issues--such as, How do we go on in the face of devastation--the Holocaust, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, even New York City?"

In "Embers" Sigman wears a rough shapeless dress like a burlap sack. At first she stands still, arms hanging, her only movement a rhythmic shaking of the head that expresses--what? incredulity? a nagging headache? a nervous tic born of trauma?

Sigman won't tell you how to interpret it, but she is happy to discuss the question of interpretation.

"What makes an interpretation of art 'correct'? I take a nonintentionalist view," she says. "I don't think interpretation is a game about guessing the intentions of the artist. There may be acceptable interpretations that have little to do with what the artist intended --but that doesn't mean just anything goes. The interpreter has to be accountable to the work, to be able to point to evidence for the interpretation."

Interpretation is the topic of Sigman's dissertation, called "Bodies, Souls and Ordinary People: The Philosophical Complexities of Artistic Interpretation."

But rather than focusing on theories of art interpretation, she says, "I explore interpretation through art, letting philosophical questions arise from the subtleties and complexities of individual cases."

The dissertation includes three "case studies," in performance art, painting and dance, essays which, she says, "have grown organically from my experience."

She observes that "We often interpret art without even realizing it-- when we give our opinion of it, or when we say that it's a work of art at all. I want to understand what we do when we interpret works of art."

The first case study (in the essay "Bodies") deals with "the performance artist Stelarc, who hung himself over a New York intersection by fish hooks piercing his skin." Many people's "gut reaction" to this performance was that it was "offensive" or "morally wrong," Sigman says. But she points out that such reactions already involve some measure of interpretation. "Interpretation precedes even seemingly basic responses."

In her second essay ("Souls") Sigman examines the concept of "theatricality" in the "Last Supper" altarpiece by Dirk Bouts in the St. Pieterskerk in Leuven. "I present a reading of the painting that suggests how we can learn from ahistorical interpretations," she says.

The third essay ("Ordinary People") discusses the "pedestrian" dance works of the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. "These works defied almost all previous conventions of dance performance" Sigman says. The choreographers "stripped away so much of what makes dance, dance. They wanted to look like somebody on the street. One of them sat on a bench and ate a sandwich. They repudiated technical virtuosity, rehearsals, even music. And yet their approach became an important part of what we accept as dance today. What does this tell us about what makes something art?"

Pure thought, pure movement

"Most people who try to talk about dance and philosophy are either philosophers who like dance or dancers who want to make philosophical statements --and both fail," according to Sigman's dissertation adviser, Alexander Nehamas, Carpenter Professor in the Humanities. "But Jill has succeeded in joining a theoretical and philosophical understanding with her own living participation--in other words, she can see both philosophy and dance from the inside.

"She is engaged, practically speaking, in two totally different things at the same time: the pure thought of philosophy and the pure movement of dance. She acknowledges two different worlds which have virtually no understanding of one another, and lives in both."

Sigman will not be dancing in the upcoming faculty-student dance concert, but six students will present a piece of her choreography. Entitled "Still Life," it animates a 17th-century Dutch still life of a table laden with fruit. To catch it, catch the concert at 8:00 p.m. on February 20 through 22 in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall.