A visit to a rehearsal of “RED” with Ann Law at the Barking Legs Theater
I recently had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ann Law, the creative force behind Barking Legs Theater, watching her lead a group of dancers in an incredible practice session for their upcoming production entitled “RED.”
“The way I work is collaboratively,” said Law. “I pull together people and communities. Making art is a lot about problem solving. Usually I have questions that I want to think about. We might not be able to answer them, but I hope they at least open a door to a conversation.”
A man with a large box arrived, and we followed him into the theater. He pulled a noose out of the box, cheerfully saying, “I’ve got 11 of these here.” I learned the row of nooses was to serve as a visual representation of the prison industrial complex. As the set was prepared, the dancers began to show up for the rehearsal.
Everybody sat down in the lobby and faced a large marker board upon which Law was writing notes. She started the conversation by asking questions like, “Why did I invite you here? Can creativity be taught?” The dancers chimed in with responses. I was impressed with how Ann used their answers to help explain what she was thinking and expecting.
Then she set forth some more difficult questions about the piece being rehearsed: “Is there a connection between our current system of mass incarceration and earlier forms of social control? “Why does the USA imprison a larger percentage of African people than South Africa did at the height of apartheid?” “Why do 80 percent of young African Americans in major US cities have criminal records?” “What would it take to disable mass incarceration?” The group discussed these questions, and then moved into the theater to begin the rehearsal.
Law started the dancers off with an exercise. They were crawling, rolling, twisting, curving, and undulating from left to right. As they went back and forth across the stage, she encouraged them to become more nightmarish with their movements, throwing limbs, kicking, writhing, and flailing; then they were silently and slowly crawling in a straight line on their hands and knees, their movements animal-like. They ended the warm-up by standing in a circle and contemplating the feeling of what it would be like to be in a jail cell, stomping as if having a conversation with their feet.
The group rehearsed the piece. It was a visceral and extremely intense experience watching them interact with the nooses, but it was also strangely beautiful, like seeing an orchestra rehearse a symphony.
The dance concluded and we moved into the lobby to discuss the next stage of rehearsal. The “RED” performance is divided into five acts: BIRTH, NOOSE, SCREAMING SIRENS, MEAT, and COMING TOGETHER. I had just witnessed NOOSE, and now it was time for the dancers to work on COMING TOGETHER. As she did before, Ann started by asking some questions. “What is folk dance? What do these dances mean? Who makes folk dances?”
After the discussion, the group began to create a folk dance for the 21st century. Holding hands, Law and the dancers stood in a circle on the stage. After saying their names, they began to breathe together as a group. They raised their hands as they exhaled, lowering them as they exhaled. Moving in unison, they bent at their waists as they exhaled. Still holding hands, they made the biggest circle possible, then they scrunched up together into the smallest circle possible.
They lay down on the stage in a circle with their heads together and feet facing outwards, and began to move their arms in the air, like a big upside-down jellyfish. Giggling and having fun now, they moved their legs in the air like cyclists or soccer players doing exercises. They turned to their sides, then rolled over into a posture that looked like part of the yoga “sun salutation.” Standing, they turned and stretched, moving their arms into the center of the circle, and then they walked in unison, expanding and contracting the circle.
Law divided them into two groups. We watched as the groups choreographed their folk dances. In less than 30 minutes they developed two completely different folk dances that were both beautiful to watch and masterfully executed. One was very graceful, like a ballet, while the other was more tribal and rhythmic.
I can tell you that this show is not to be missed.
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“RED,” 7:30 p.m. June 12-15. June 12, Q&A with Concerned Citizens for Justice; June 13 with Tennessee Equality Project; June 14 with Chattanooga Organized for Action; June 15 with Build Me a World. For more information and tickets, visit barkinglegs.org