Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 10, 2023

The little theater that could

Barking Legs celebrates 30 years of alternative entertainment

In 1993, when improvisational dancer, choreographer and instructor Ann Law founded Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga “in the buckle of the Bible Belt,” she recalls, “No one here even knew what alternative art was. For the first seven years we could never really build an audience. We had the same number of people come from Day One and the same faces. They were so supportive, but we weren’t growing any new audiences because it was so eclectic and so ahead of its time. But it did give me an artistic outlet. And it’s taken on its own life now.”

 Three decades after Barking Legs opened its doors in an intimate Dodds Avenue building with enviable acoustics, it is still pushing boundaries and entertaining fans, both longtime and new.

Through Nov. 22, the inclusive “listening room” is celebrating its 30th anniversary with 22 performances, from standup comedy and burlesque to bluegrass and jazz, on 22 consecutive evenings. Guests can purchase tickets online or at the door (if they’re not sold out), and prepaid passes are available for five or 10 events, or all 22.

The California-born Law, who started dancing at age 3, studied and performed in Miami, Philadelphia and New York, immersing herself in musical theater, ballet, jazz and tap before falling in love with modern dance.

By the time she and her husband, a physician, moved to Chattanooga in 1990, she was ready to topple artistic barriers in a new, smaller city.

The name of the nonprofit venue, incidentally, alludes to the rugged “barkleggings” worn by Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and other trailblazers to cover their shins. It also echoes the Barkleggin Trail in East Tennessee’s Big Frog Wilderness Area as well as musician Frank Zappa’s record label, Barking Pumpkin Records, both of which Law serendipitously came across while pondering the perfect title.

Surprising from the start

In the early days, Barking Legs surprised Chattanoogans by hosting some of the city’s most controversial shows while spotlighting social justice issues ranging from religion to race and sexual orientation.

“I never wanted to push somebody over the edge, and I never wanted to totally offend somebody,” Law says. “My intention was to encourage them to look at things with a different perspective, because I think change is the most important thing that can happen in a community, especially positive change. But even sometimes negative change can rise a community up and get them to be more active.

“At first it was like-minded people, and then we started to stretch out and take people a little bit further, more [away] from their comfort zone. And that’s been a really beautiful thing.”

During the near-monthlong anniversary celebration, Law will give a solo performance and dance with her fellow artists in other productions, like “Nutbush City Limits,” which paid homage to Tina Turner through poetry, music and, of course, dance. “I’m dancing with one dancer who I’ve been dancing with for 12 years. The other dancer, I’ve been dancing with for 32 years. I have almost 50 years of dancing with these two women.

“Tina Turner was such an icon. We love her, but I said, ‘What if we look at her work as an inspiration? Let’s go in and do a real tribute to Tina Turner and what she inspires in us.’ We’re going in and working with her music, but in a very mature way, as mature dancers. We’re looking at Tina’s work through a different lens.”

Despite her extensive choreography experience and respect for the basic structures of music and dance, rigidity is the last thing Law wants when it comes to performances. “I never have told a dancer what steps to do,” she says. “We are literally honoring our individual bodies and our own creativity, getting rid of that hierarchy in our art form. I conceive and direct these pieces, but they’re all choreographed by all of us. I work with professionals. I work with dance artists. And I love working with them. They’re individuals, they’re independent thinkers and they have a wealth of information. They constantly stimulate me.”

The floor is key

At 66, the talkative, passionate Law credits the theater’s “sprung” dance floor, which relies on special shock absorbers for its comfortable feel, for her ability to keep performing barefoot after all these years.

“The floor is just beautiful,” she says. “You’re only dancing on maybe three-quarters of an inch of wood that’s sitting on top of rubber stoppers. So I don’t have any knee problems. I don’t have any joint, hip problems, nothing.”

Like many entertainment venue operators, Law and music director Bruce Kaplan, 68, were forced to let their staff go during the pandemic and lock the doors for two years. When it was time to reopen, they agreed they needed help running Barking Legs rather than continue to do it all themselves.

“We’re older now. We’re wanting to take longer vacations and get involved in more things, different things,” Law says. “But Barking Legs is so quirky, people have to really be invested in it. I can’t just put an ad out there and then somebody shows up.

“We’re not thinking about retiring because, I mean, this is my life, right? How do you retire from your life? We have this extremely rich history and we didn’t want to just toss that to the side. And all of a sudden, in August three people came in and said, ‘We want to be involved, 100%.’ And we were in shock. So we’ve got the next generation in the door.”

The new staff members will allow Barking Legs to provide more mentoring and programming. And instead of a fulltime-plus job, Law says, “I’ve got a really wonderful kind of a job that allows a lot of flexibility in my life.”

 That doesn’t mean that the wheels aren’t turning in Law’s creative brain when it comes to theater offerings in 2024. Her team is currently working to revamp the educational component that went nearly dormant a few years ago. A fringe festival – a nontraditional, open-access event that welcomes all artists – is also in the works, as are more community organizations “working with us like a family,” Law says. “It’s all the things that I put on the back burner because we didn’t really have the right [staff] partnership.”

 The theater has had a tremendous impact on Chattanooga, she says. “We really believe that every city should have a Barking Legs. We’re an active force here. People love Barking Legs, and they’ve seen work that they normally would never have gone someplace to see. We try to do work that no one else is doing. You can see certain things at the Tivoli [Theatre], at the Memorial [Auditorium], at the Walker Auditorium. You can see certain things at the Chattanooga Theater Center. But at Barking Legs, we really skirt a lot of stuff. I think it’s fantastic because you’re seeing stuff that you normally wouldn’t see any place else.”

 So, after 30 years, what is she most proud of? “We’ve literally been a ‘safe place’ since 1993,” Law says. “And that has been the most beautiful part of Barking Legs – to be able to reach our diverse and marginalized communities and invite them in and have them do performances that are just amazing.”