Hovering over her on all fours, the man looks into the woman as if he’s caught his own reflection. Cradled on the floor, she has nestled her feet into his chest. Slowly, without breaking eye contact, the man begins an ascension to standing. The woman extends her legs, and it looks like he is floating, drawn upward by some mystery in the clouds. This striking scene comes from emerging choreographer Annie Rigney’s “Galithea,” which was selected for presentation at the Joyce Theater in 2021 as part of the 92NY Harkness Dance Center’s Future Dance Festival.
In the two years since “Galithea,” Rigney has been commissioned by the 92NY, the Ailey School, and the Martha Graham Dance Company (her new work will be part of their New York season at the Joyce this April). “Galithea” was her entry into the choreography scene—rather, it was her reentry: Rigney has been making dances since childhood.
“I started a dance company when I was in middle school and started making full, evening-length works all the way through high school,” she said. “Choreography has always been one of my biggest passions and sort of just spilled out of me when I was younger.”
Originally from Berkeley, California, Rigney attended the State University of New York at Purchase and studied composition under Kazuko Hirabayashi. While in college, she saw the Batsheva Dance Company perform for the first time.
“My life took a sharp turn,” Rigney said. “I had never seen dancers move like that before.”
Gaga was a stark but welcome contrast to Rigney’s early dance training in Vaganova ballet.
“Like many people, I had some traumatic experiences with ballet,” Rigney said. “I had a very severe, borderline-abusive Russian-trained teacher. I think that the path I took really saved me.”
After a summer intensive with the company in Israel, Rigney joined the Batsheva Ensemble (the organization’s young company) for one year, right out of college. Following her time at Batsheva, she danced with Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company (now Avshalom Pollak Dance Theater) for several more years.
“I loved [Tel Aviv],” Rigney said. “It’s a very young, modern city, and the work was incredibly fulfilling.”
In addition to Gaga class, the Batsheva Dancers are treated in the Ilan Lev Method, a bodywork practice which builds upon the Feldenkrais Method, focusing on communication between the body and the central nervous system in order to relieve pain and increase mobility. The Ilan Lev Method would capture Rigney’s curiosity, add an additional leg to her professional path, and continue to deeply inspire her work.
“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” Rigney said. “I didn’t even have the vocabulary to understand what was happening. I needed to know more.”
In an Ilan Lev session, the practitioner physically guides the patient through passive movement exercises, helping the patient differentiate body parts and currents of movement.
“I was very tight and stiff as a young dancer,” Rigney said. “I thought I didn’t have the facility to do what I wanted. Through Gaga and through the Ilan Lev Method, I started unwinding all of these patterns and pathways that we learn when we’re really young, that are maybe not the most efficient use of our bodies. Suddenly, all of my patterning let go, and it was like I had this new clean slate.”
Within a couple of months, Rigney signed up for a course to train with Ilan Lev, himself: “I think it’s the decision I thought least about in my whole life!” she said.
Rigney is now a practicing Ilan Lev therapist in New York, the Director of the ILM New York Training Course, and is co-teaching the International ILM Training Course with Yaniv Minser. She has a lively clientele, including dancers of Punchdrunk’s NYC Sleep No More (with whom Rigney danced up until 2020), Andrea Miller’s Gallim, and a number of local musicians, who often seek treatment for repetitive strains.
Georgia Usborne, who danced in Rigney’s “Galithea” and performs with both Gallim and Sleep No More, also discovered the Ilan Lev Method while studying in Israel. She now practices with Rigney.
“It works so much with movement,” Usborne said. “You’re surrendering to having the practitioner work on your body. Annie really takes her time.”
Taking time and a sense of surrender are central to Rigney’s choreography, too. In that gravity-defying moment from “Galithea,” Usborne displays an incredible feat of strength—pushing Jason Reese Cianciulli into the air with just her legs—but there’s a tenderness to the lift, where, because she takes her time and he has completely surrendered his weight to her, he genuinely appears to levitate.
“I’m really interested in how the effort and tension and tone of our body can tell a story. How the sheer physicality of a movement holds narrative, rather than wearing a narrative as a costume,” Rigney said.
A devotion to the movement practice is crucial.
“The class work must be the stage work,” Rigney said. “Looking to so many great and transformative choreographers such as Martha Graham, they developed a movement language and then they ‘spoke it’ onstage.”
“The physicality is the jumping-off point,” Usborne said of Rigney’s work. “We would have a class before every rehearsal. Annie is so invested in the process—she’s doing the [physical] work, too.”
Graham Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber is struck by the depth of emotion that Rigney is able to draw through this physical language.
“In 2020, I was a panelist for the Future Dance Festival. I probably viewed over 60 videos, and Annie’s submission was a real stand out,” Eilber said. “It was abstract and yet evocative and deeply emotional. In addition, her work often centers on the power of the feminine—always a popular theme at Graham—and I knew it would resonate with our classic rep.”
Rigney’s new piece for Graham, “Get Up, My Daughter,” “is at once a rallying cry, an apology, and a prayer, exploring feminine rage, grief, and sisterhood.”
“For me, the most powerful moment is when we’re in a core group in the first section. All of us women are dancing together,” said Graham dancer Anne Souder. “There’re these moments of such gentle silence where the music cuts out, and we all have to touch the floor at the same time. In that moment, the struggle that women go through that we’re trying to portray is one we all understand.”
The music for “Get Up, My Daughter” is a combination of a piece by the all-female Bulgarian State Choir and a new piece by Italian composer Marco Rosano.
“The women are singing simultaneous major and minor harmonies, which is rare in choral music,” Rigney said. “It creates this really intense pull down to the center of the earth and this uplifting ecstatic singing. It holds the grief and the exaltation at once.”
Rigney is greatly inspired by music for her work. Her father is a musician, and as a kid, Rigney loved exploring his “massive” record collection.
“At a really young age, [my dad] could put records on and say, ‘who is that?’ I’d be able to name Dvořák! Grieg! Tchaikovsky! It was really a part of my upbringing.”
Even while working on a limited rehearsal schedule with the Graham dancers, Rigney made sure to make time for class.
“In Graham, we work with this idea of sequentialism, initiating from the core,” Souder said. “Annie applied [this] in her classes, but you don’t always have to start with the same body part: It will still travel in a currency, sequentially. It’s really interesting to think that you can get to the same position, but it doesn’t have to always start with the thing that you’re used to.”
“Anyone who listens to the body and truly understands the anatomy of the body will ultimately come up with the same basic pathways for movement,” Rigney said. “The way we get there might be different, but we arrive at similar places.
There are only so many ways that we move. I love getting closer to the authenticity of those movements.”