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THROUGHOUT NOVEMBER, ANN LAW AND BRUCE KAPLAN ARE celebrating the 20th anniversary of Barking Legs Theater with an intense month-long schedule jammed with music and dance performances. I sat down with Bruce and Ann to talk about their 20-year ride in the theater that greets visitors with dangling green mannequin legs.
When they moved here from New York City in October 1990, they found very little contemporary original performance art, either music or dance. Once they had a house, Ann began looking for a performance space.
Even before starting the theater, Ann was collaborating with other arts organizations through her own nonprofit called COPAC (Contemporary Performing Arts of Chattanooga)—for example, presenting a four-week series of dance film presentations at the Hunter Museum and a night of jazz and tap with the Chattanooga African-American Museum.
“From the very beginning we were trying to create community, trying to create diversity inside this arts scene,” she says.
Barking Legs opened in December 1993, primarily as a space for Ann to do her own dance work and host contemporary arts performances. She presented challenging work in a vein that had not been seen in Chattanooga and set out to build an audience for it.
“I’ve always been interested in that kind of art,” says Ann. “I’m not a regular seasonal subscriber to the symphony or the ballet. I’ve always been more interested in how art makes social changes, so that was work I wanted to bring in and introduce to my community.”
One of first performances she presented was "Tom and Sally," a play about the hidden sexual relationship between President Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings, by playwright Doug Cooney, years before a move version was made.
“It was a great way to open up a dialogue to the Chattanooga community about what is racism, how do we feel about biracial marriages and relationships,” she says.
Over three consecutive years, she presented a trilogy of plays about growing up as a gay Latino in Texas by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, who received the first Tennessee Williams Fellowship at the University of the South.
“I can take pride in saying I was the first presenter in Chattanooga that presented queer art,” she adds.
While Ann was building a contemporary arts audience, Bruce was building a neurology practice, supporting her vision but not actively participating in the theater. After six or seven years, Ann was burning out on being a presenter, and Bruce was feeling a renewed pull toward music.
“I grew up as a rock and roller,” Bruce says. “I went from there into playing sort of ‘avant noise’ stuff, the improvised music that got me to become friends with the Shaking Ray Levis, which was a conduit to thinking about relocating here when a job became available.”
A saxophonist friend had introduced Bruce and Ann to Dennis Palmer and Bob Stagner, the Shaking Ray Levis, when they performed in New York City. The four quickly became friends, and the Shaking Rays were their connection to Chattanooga.
Once they were here, Bruce was attracted to the music of the region and learned to play the mandolin. Together with George Bright, in 1997 he began presenting acoustic music drawing from bluegrass and folk traditions. In 2001, Ann stopped presenting other artists’ work. She still does her own dance concerts, but now Barking Legs more often presents acoustic acts and improvisational or avant-garde music co-produced with the Shaking Ray Levi Society.
Ann’s contribution to the anniversary roster was a rousing, sexy-funny multi-art collaboration: six “kitchen dances” choreographed by her, inspired by Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Come On in My Kitchen,” and framed by food and drink tastings and spoken word presentations. That evening is, regrettably, in the past now. But it led to a telling exchange.
Ann: “I’m so tired of people sitting at a dance concert and going ‘So, uh, what was going on there, what did they mean by that?’”
Bruce: “It’s not that we don’t like avant-garde slogs. We’ve been responsible for our share of them and attend them with enthusiasm. This one is not. It’s a fun evening.”
Ann: “It’s not about keeping the dance at arms length. It’s about bringing the dance in.”
That’s Barking Legs in a nutshell. This month, I heard an improvisational pianist and virtuoso acoustic bluegrass on back-to-back nights. Last month, I saw a group of percussionists make beautiful, hypnotic music on amplified two-by-fours. Last week I saw cheeky dances with knives inspired by a long-dead bluesman.
Despite its extreme diversity—or maybe because it—it’s all art with heart, played and presented up close and personal without pretension or hype by real people sharing what they love. Check it out. Even the avant-garde stuff is more accessible than it sounds. Those two-by-fours were really amazing.
Upcoming anniversary shows at Barking Legs include Rahsaan Barber (modern jazz, Nov. 14), Norman and Nancy Blake’s Rising Fawn String Ensemble (bluegrass, Nov. 15), and Bombadil with Birds With Fleas (folk/pop, Nov. 16). Full schedule at barkinglegs.org.