I didn’t really know what my major would be when I arrived at Princeton. At some point early on, I started to think it might be art history. I surprised everyone when I declared that it was philosophy.
I didn’t know what philosophy was when I entered Princeton. So I’m not really sure what compelled me to take Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology as a freshman, besides the fact that it sounded profound and that I had inexplicably carried around a book about Leibniz for some months in high school. But as soon as I began to study philosophy I was hooked. I had discovered a place where all of my vexing impulses to raise questions, uncover assumptions, and spell out the underlying reasoning were finally welcome. Socrates, patriarch of western philosophical thought, was celebrated as a gadfly. I felt that in some way, far from the Brooklyn of my childhood, I had come home. I majored in philosophy because I knew I would regret not following that thread, not exploring the questions that were so alive and compelling for me. Philosophy of science allowed me to look analytically at all the science I had studied so intensively, to ask questions about theory formation and theory choice. Philosophy of art allowed me to investigate artistic interpretation, to turn a philosophical eye on the dance I had studied seriously since the age of seven and the visual arts I loved. I eventually wrote a senior thesis combining these two areas of investigation.
After graduation, I wasn’t done with philosophy, or perhaps I should say philosophy wasn’t done with me. I continued on to graduate study to write about aesthetics, all the while still dancing and choreographing professionally in New York, California, and Belgium. I saw my doctoral work in philosophy as a fitting counterpart to my development as a choreographer. I was continuing to refine my ability to ask questions and to think clearly—simultaneously through words and body. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on artistic interpretation and created solo dances that grappled with issues like social responsibility, militarism, gender identity, and mind/body dualism. In 1998, I founded my dance company, jill sigman/thinkdance. It was the same year that I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton.
My company’s mission is to raise questions through the medium of the body. I want audience members to be intellectual partners in my explorations—to think and feel and question in response to seeing multi-layered performance that is both challenging and exciting. Migrating far from my initial training in classical ballet, I have come to make work that exists at the intersection of dance, theater, and visual installation, often using non-traditional environments, formats and ways of engaging the viewer. I have performed in a dilapidated socialist printing house, a former munitions storage unit, a fence over a toxic canal, a 19c. gymnasium. In my dances, audience members have been invited to write on eggshells, hear messages on cell phones, travel from place to place, and vote on questions of gender equality. My artistic work allows me to travel extensively, experience unusual spaces in intimate ways, witness rituals of other cultures, meet and collaborate with interesting people, teach inquiring college students, and touch people in unexpected and fulfilling ways. And I even find my photo in the New York Times on occasion. [NB: This interview was conducted in August 2013.]
What I do with jill sigman/thinkdance is not as far from my philosophical training as it might seem. I regularly use my critical thinking and writing skills to write grants for my company, and I have taught grant-writing seminars for other artists. I recently gave a workshop on movement and meaning for a philosophy of language class at a small college. And most importantly, I am still trying to make people think—trying to raise questions about the world and the actions and identities we choose to have in it. My current artistic career is a complete product of my philosophical background. I would not make the work I make, nor have the choreographic profile I have, without that path that I embarked on as a curious freshman. In fact, I would not be the person I am today. I still admire Socrates. As a choreographer and performer, I too strive to be a gadfly—to poke and probe and wonder—and I am grateful for the intellectual rigor and physical acumen that my idiosyncratic study has allowed.