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Untethered

Much of the power behind Annie Rigney's “…she was becoming untethered” comes from what you can’t see. The new evening-length piece, which premiered at the 92NY, uses illusion and subtleties to meld experiences of sorrow, horror, courage, and humor, guiding the audience on a mysterious journey through the surreal. 

Performance

Annie Rigney's “…she was becoming untethered.”

Place

92NY, New York, NY, June 23, 2023

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Ellexis Hatch in “…she was becoming untethered” by Annie Rigney. Photograph by Joe Sinnot

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Rigney is an emerging choreographer who was recently commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company for a piece, “Get Up, My Daughter“ that premiered in April. This latest dance, “…she was becoming untethered,“ is her first evening-length work. The idea was to explore the tipping point between beauty and ridicule in dramatic expression, particularly looking towards opera as an art form which tends to waver on the scale. Rigney poses the question, “can the expressive capacity of the human voice be matched and explored through extreme sustained movements, and at what point does heightened emotion tip over the edge from expression to absurdity, and even into comedy?” 

At the same time, the piece deals with serious subject matter, inspired in part by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous 1892 American short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which follows the first-person narrative of a woman diagnosed with hysteria. Confined to a room for several weeks and discouraged from any activity, the woman slowly becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, and descends into madness. 

Kayleigh Smerud in “...she was becoming untethered” by Annie Rigney. Photograph by Steven Pisano

“The Yellow Wallpaper” depicted a common nineteenth century “treatment” that was often prescribed for mainly wealthier, upper class women who exhibited any kind of “out of the ordinary” behavior: For example, outspokenness or unusual meekness; promiscuity or sexual disinterest; too much fainting or not enough fainting. These women were placed in isolation for six to eight weeks at a time, fed a strict diet, and were prohibited from working or socializing. The treatment was called “the rest cure.” 

Appropriately, Rigney’s piece begins with a woman in a fabulous gold Victorian dress slumped over an armchair, resting. The score is a compilation, much of which is new and previously recorded music by the Italian composer Marco Rosano. The piece opens to the gorgeous, haunting sound of Rosano’s collaborator, acclaimed countertenor Andreas Scholl, while a group of dancers surround the woman, snaking their upper bodies and arms side to side. The woman rises, but she never can stand up straight, bound by the corseted dress. She repeatedly falls over in impossible-seeming backbends, draped over the hoop of her skirt like Salvador Dali's melting clocks in Persistence of Memory. Sometimes a leg is extended to the side while she is in the backbend, and she looks like a magician's assistant, with body parts cut up and reassembled incongruously. 

It takes a while to realize that there is something hidden beneath the surface. Eventually, the dress is unbuttoned, and it slides down the woman who emerges liberated in a black slip. As she steps away, the dress pulses and then creeps off the stage, too, along with whomever was hiding underneath it. (Here's a moment that cleverly slithers the line between dramatically captivating and downright funny.) 

Rebecca Margolick in “...she was becoming untethered” by Annie Rigney. Photograph by Joe Sinnott

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” is a terrifying story, and there are parts of “…she was becoming untethered” that are just as chilling. Lights go dark and we hear unintelligible whispers like auditory hallucinations. Dancers are still except for one who roams around, illuminating others one at a time with a flashlight. The dancer with the flashlight is like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who begins to see a shadow woman— arguably herself— trapped within the wallpaper. The protagonist floats like a ghost at night, searching for the prisoner. 

In part, Rigney's piece is about the liberation of women (although the cast also includes three men). It begins highlighting one single woman, but by the end, several women have demonstrated strong solos, and there's a triumph of sisterhood. 

Once again, things are not always as they appear, and the freedom is accompanied by a sense of falling apart. At the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist arguably becomes free when her husband passes out in the doorway, allowing her to escape. Of course, the cause of his fainting was her evident madness: she became untethered, but she was also unravelling. 

“...she was becoming untethered” by Annie Rigney. Photograph by Joe Sinnott

Rigney uses her ensemble choreography like a chorus to demonstrate this unravelling. Her influence of gaga and Ilan Lev Method (Rigney danced with the Batsheva Ensemble) is clear: The dancers shake and writhe in sequential movements that ultimately make their way to the ground. 

Influenced also by her work with the immersive theatre show Sleep No More, some of the most ingenious moments come from a theatrical use of costumes and props. In further depicting the metaphors of untethering and unravelling, there are subtle solo parts that act as foreshadowing. In one moment, a single woman is wrapped in a dark cloth and then thrown across the stage. As she rolls out of it to the back, the cloth sticks to the floor and looks like a long, pulled thread. Cloth is manipulated again when it is extracted slowly by a woman from the chest of a male dancer. The woman looks like she is sucking out the man's soul. 

The Victorian gown reappears throughout. At the end, the dress is truly empty, and a man rushes onstage toward it in disbelief. He covers his mouth and gasps in horror. The disappearance of the woman could mean many things— she is dead; she was abducted; maybe she has finally been released. Any of these interpretations beg a sense of earnest. 

At the same time, when the man first reenters to inspect the scene, he tiptoes towards it as if sneaking up on a mouse, pokes it with his foot, then scurries away to distance himself. Is the end tragic? Maybe. Victorious for the missing woman? Could be. Did the audience laugh? Absolutely. 

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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