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Northwestern School of Communication

Billy Siegenfeld

Professor
70 Arts Circle Drive
Room 5-177
Evanston, IL 60208

Department

Theatre
Billy Siegenfeld

Billy Siegenfeld is a former jazz and rock drummer; a present-day vocal-rhythmic theatre-movement actor; the founder, artistic director, choreographer, and musical arranger of the theatre company Jump Rhythm® (www.jumprhythm.org); an author of essays and plays; and a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence in the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University.

The courses he teaches both at Northwestern and in national and international residencies are guided by two holistic, “less is more” concepts:

  • Standing Down Straight® is an anatomically fact-based, injury-preventive approach to body-and-voice training. Basing all movements and vocalizations on energy-efficient, gravity-directed relaxation, it guides people to do both performative and everyday tasks with less physical strain, more emotional conviction, and a greater mind-body connectedness to the earth, to oneself, and to the people one lives, works, and/or plays with.
  • Jump Rhythm® is a jazz-rhythm-driven, scat-sung approach to teaching theatre movement. Its goal is to help actors, singers, dancers, and musicians turn bodies and voices into rhythmically sharp, emotion-driven percussion instruments. It is built upon three practices: the relaxation-guided approach to posture, movement, and vocalization called Standing Down Straight®; the African-originated approach to full-bodied rhythm-making called “ngoma” (“drumming and rhythmic song-dancing”); and the mutually benefiting, give-and-take approach to human interactions called democracy.

The courses he teaches using these two concepts are:

  • Standing Down Straight® for Actors/Acting from the Natural Body: Using Relaxation as Springboard to Powerful Stage Performance.
  • Partnered Swing-Dancing as Gravity-Directed, Natural-Movement Source of Equal Give-and-Take Collaborations (cross-school course with Engineering).
  • Jump Rhythm® Technique.
  • Jump Rhythm® Tap
  • Staging Action: Rhythmic and Dynamic Approaches to Directing Movement for the Stage

His creative work focuses on building theatre performances out of primal human behaviors. The emphasis is on the expression of energy, not shape – on articulating the energies we feel at our most relaxed and unself-conscious, rather than the looks we display at our most self-conscious and public. This process turns fusions of rhythm-driven motion, song, and speech into stories that laugh, cry, or rant about our species’ most dominant condition: believing that we never have enough; tampering with Mother Nature to get more than enough; and then realizing – when we replace overreaching social constructs with ungreedily-reaching human behavior – that what we already have is enough.

Springing from this idea is his play with music and rhythmic movement, What Do You Want To Be When You Give Up? It premiered at the Mark O’Donnell Theater in New York City in 2019 and the Bathway Theatre in London the same year. In the 2022-2023 season, a revised version of the play is scheduled to be performed in a return engagement at the O’Donnell Theatre, at theatres in Berlin, Germany and Toulouse, France, and on tour in the New England states.

His most recent essay (in manuscript) is “Democracy’s Energy.” The subtitle suggests its multi-thread narrative: “How the African-American gift to the world called swinging a beat beats back despair; says letting go is better than holding on; reminds us no pedestal works better than the ground we stand on; and teaches democracy can only work when we practice it on ourselves.”

His first book (in manuscript) is titled STANDING DOWN (NOT UP!) STRAIGHT: How to Make Gravity Your New Best Friend and Ground Your Body, Soothe Your Soul, Know You Can’t Always Get What You Want, and, along the way, Relieve Lower-Back Pain.

Previous published essays include “Performing Energy: American Rhythm Dancing and ‘The Great Articulation of the Inarticulate’ ” (2014); “The Art of Misbehaving: Youth, American Rhythm Dancing, and the Need to Not Be Good” (2012); “Standing Down Straight@: Jump Rhythm’s Communally Engaged-In, Rhythm-Driven Approach to Performing Arts Education” (2009); “Opening the Door: Teaching to the Person Inside the Student” (2002); and “If Jazz Dance, Then Jazz Music” (1992).

He received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Brown University and a master’s degree in jazz music and dance from New York University’s Gallatin Division. His thesis was titled “Hunting the Rhythmic Snark: The Search for Swing in Jazz Performance.” When living in New York City, he performed with modern dancer and choreographer Don Redlich; directed the dance program of Hunter College; performed as an actor-dancer-singer in off-off-Broadway shows and in the Broadway production of Singin’ in the Rain; and studied Meisner-based acting with Tim Philips and natural-voice singing with Joan Kobin.

After becoming injured from years of dance training that emphasized pushing the body beyond its nature-given limits, he studied an approach to human movement called ideokinesis as taught by André Bernard. Ideokinesis uses gravity-directed, skeletal relaxation to heal the body and, in a seeming paradox, power it. It is based on the ideas of posture and motion innovated by Mabel Ellsworth Todd. In The Thinking Body, she both analyzes and affirms what our cousins the animals are experts at: letting the body do what it wants to do rather than what we, at our most overreachingly overcontrolling, think it should do. Todd’s point of view inspired the creation of Standing Down Straight®.

He also works for the environment. As an Openlands TreeKeeper, he helps maintain park trees around Evanston and works with a group of volunteers to ensure the health and preservation of the town’s Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary.

Education

  • MA Jazz Music and Dance, New York University
  • BA Literature, Brown University

Recent Publications

Billy Siegenfeld is a writer on various subjects, including vernacular-bodied, jazz-rhythm-based performance; teaching to “the person inside the student”; and “Standing Down Straight®,” a gravity-directed, injury-preventive approach to both actor training and everyday behavior.

His most recent article, “Performing Energy: American Rhythm Dancing and ‘The Great Articulation of the Inarticulate’,” appears in an anthology of jazz writings, Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches. His next article, “Democracy’s Energy,” will appear in a text on Jump Rhythm titled Democracy’s Energy: Getting Down to Go Forward.

Recent Awards, Honors, and Commissions

  • Commission by Millennium Performing Arts, London, England: director, choreographer, and vocal-rhythmic musical arranger of Variations on “I’ve Got Your Number,” premiered at Bathway Theatre, London, England.
  • Commission by Chicago Tap Theatre: director and co-choreographer of Tidings of Tap, premiered at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
  • “Best New Production 2016”: Chicago Tap Theatre, for direction of Time Steps, conferred by Dance Magazine.
  • Commission by Chicago Tap Theatre: director of Time Steps, premiered at Stage 773, Chicago IL.
  • Artistic Achievement Award, conferred by Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, 2016. Commission by Jump Collective Finland: choreographer and vocal-rhythmic musical arranger of god of dirt, and Too Close for Comfort, premiered at the Narri Theater, Helsinki, Finland.
  • Tapestry Award, conferred by Dance Inn, Lexington MA.
  • Inspiration Award, conferred by Chicago Tap Theatre.
  • Stone Camryn Lecturer on the History of Dance, designation conferred by the Newberry Library, Chicago.
  • Choreographer of the Year, awarded by Dance Chicago and Cliff Dwellers Arts Foundation.
  • Commission by European Union and the City of Turku, funding the site-specific re-creation of Sorrows of Unison Dancing, premiered at Brinkhall Manor, Kaskerta, Finland.
  • Outstanding Choreographer: Body of Work, conferred by Dance Chicago.
  • Editors’ Video Award, for the production of Why Gershwin?, conferred by Dance Teacher.
  • Emmy® Award, Outstanding Achievement for Individual Excellence On Camera: Performer, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project: Getting There.
  • Ruth Page Award: Outstanding Contributions to the Field, conferred by the Ruth Page Award Committee, Fulbright Senior Scholar, designation conferred in conjunction with a two-week residency at Turku University of Applied Sciences, Turku, Finland by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State, and the Council of International Exchange of Scholars, 2005.
  • Jazz Dance World Congress Award: Outstanding Contributions to the Field, conferred by the Jazz Dance World Congress.
  • National Performance Network Creation Award, in support of a touring production of Sorrows of Unison Dancing.
  • Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, Northwestern University, 2002. Commission by Limón Dance Foundation, funding the creation of If Winter, premiered by the José Limón Dance Company at Mexican Heritage Center, San José CA.
  • Twentieth Century Timeline of Choreographers and Innovators, recognition conferred by Dance Teacher, 2000. Commission by American Theater Company: choreographer of The Mineola Twins, American Theater Company, Chicago IL.
  • Dancer recognition: “Billy Siegenfeld has used the components of the classic performances of jazz dancing as the basis of his Jump Rhythm Jazz Technique, successfully inventing the first genuine jazz dance technique in forty ” This recognition appeared in the February issue of the magazine, 1998.
  • Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreography, for Romance in Swingtime, No Way Out, and Sola Nella Mia Bocca.
  • Commission by Next Theatre: choreographer of Love’s Labor’s Lost, Next Theatre, Evanston IL, 1997. Commission by De Theaterschool, Amsterdam, Holland: choreographer and vocal-rhythmic musical arranger of Ellington Dancing, Opleiding Theater, Amsterdam, Holland,
  • Jazz Dance World Congress Gold Leo Award for Outstanding Choreography, conferred by the Jazz Dance World Congress for Getting There.
  • Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair in Dance, conferred by the University of Minnesota.

Recent Grants

In partnership with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, he has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the Richard Driehaus Foundation.

Courses

  • Jump Rhythm® Technique
  • Jump Rhythm® Tap
  • Standing Down Straight® for Actors
  • SDS-Based Partnered Swing Dancing as Source of Collaborative Decision-Making
  • Choreographing Music: Rhythmic and Dynamic Approaches to Creating Movement for the Stage
  • American Rhythm Singing-Dancing and the African-American Performance Aesthetic