Billy Siegenfeld

Billy Siegenfeld is a jazz and rock drummer; a vocal-rhythmic actor-dancer-singer; the founder, artistic director, choreographer, and musical arranger of the theatre company Jump Rhythm® (www.jumprhythm.org); an author of essays, plays, and a forthcoming book; 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 2 holistic concepts:

Standing Down Straight®, or The Anatomy of Letting Go, is a scientifically fact-based, injury-preventive, “less is more” approach to both performing arts training and daily living.  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-, funk-rhythm-, and hip-hop-rhythm-driven, scat-sung approach to teaching acting, moving, and singing.  Its goal is to help people who love to do any of these arts turn their bodies and voices into percussively syncopated musical instruments. It is built upon three practices:  the holistic approach to posture, movement, and vocalization mentioned above, 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 egalitarianism.

Among the courses he teaches using these two concepts are:

—Standing Down Straight® for Actors: Acting from the Natural Body – Using Relaxation as a Springboard to Powerful, Unmannered Stage Performance

—Partnered Swing-Dancing as Gravity-Directed, Natural-Movement Source of Equal- Give-and-Take Collaborations

—Jump Rhythm®: Transforming Voice and Body into Emotion-Driven, Percussively Syncopated Musical Instruments.

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 modestly 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. Revised during the pandemic, in the 2023-2024 season, a new version of the play is scheduled to be performed in a return engagement at the O’Donnell Theatre as well as at theatres in Finland, France, and in the New England states.

His first book (in manuscript) is titled Standing Down (Not Up!) Straight: How to Make Gravity Your New Best Friend.

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.