Holly Hughes is back in town, terriers in tow

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Holly Hughes has heard the joke about her career going to the dogs. In fact she’s among the first to say her whole life is headed that way: three terriers and three poodles between her and her partner, Esther Newton.

Is it surprising that one of the famous NEA Four— yes, this is the same Holly Hughes who helped ignite the culture wars two decades ago when she was denied a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990—is now part of the “Best in Show” set?

“Holly Hughes is a lesbian,” NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer said of her at the time, “and her work is very heavily of that genre.”

Perhaps not: The dogs have taken up such a big place in her and her and Newton’s life that her latest one-woman show is all about them. The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), part of the Hot Festival at Dixon Place, opens tomorrow night.

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“I am the terrier aficionado,” said Hughes. Her partner? “She is the pusher of poodles.”

Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and John Fleck, her fellow-travelers in court back in the 1980s, won back the grant money they’d been denied but did not succeed in winning the repeal of a “decency” requirement for artists getting government funding, though the case made it to the Supreme Court.

One reviewer noted her “rhapsodically raunchy stream-of-consciousness riffs” back then; the work is no less political now, and includes razor-sharp observations about Dick Cheney to the nature of long-term relationships.

Hughes said her love of dogs has something to do with the fact that The Wizard of Oz was on television so often when she was growing up in Saginaw, Michigan. She didn’t even particularly care for the film.

“It was always on in the background,” said Hughes. “You try to ignore it, but you can’t help it. It’s in air and the water, like songs of Barry Manilow. You say you don’t like the songs, but for some reason you know all the words.”

Hughes knew the film was about a girl who did something, and she did it with the help of a dog.

“In the end, the only one who remembers what she went through is Toto,” said Hughes. “That’s where the tragedy of Judy Garland really started. She went through that Jungian journey and never recovered.”

Dogs also figured into cultural discussion in the ‘80s, around the time she moved to New York and was doing theater work at the WOW Café. She worked with lesbian performance troupes like Split Britches and the Five Lesbian Brothers. Even back then, animal husbandry was a big part of lesbian culture; it’s perhaps more foregrounded as assimilation has made lesbian couples with pets a stereotype for everyone, not just for queer-aficionados.

“I come from that moment in queer culture where there were cat lesbians, dog lesbians, those who went both ways, and asthmatics,” said Hughes. “There were also some secret horsey lesbians, but nobody would admit to that.”

Although she “married into dogs 15 years ago,” they became a bigger part of her life when she moved to Ann Arbor to take an associate professor position at the University of Michigan. Suddenly she was in the middle of a mid-life crisis.

“Who I was in New York was just not legible in Ann Arbor,” Hughes said. “I needed to figure out another identity. I guess I also could have worked at a community garden, adopted a kid, or become a ‘locavore.’”

So she delved into dog culture.

“You know, I do things all the way,” said Hughes. “I was going to dog shows and dog training. I was spending time and money on seminars about reading canine body language. It was self-reinvention through dogs.”

She discovered a “zany subculture” that wasn’t so different from the lesbian community she had always known.

“The dog world is full of women in haircuts and clothes that look like they’re saying ‘I just gave up,’” said Hughes. “They’re so not gay — they may be queer, but they are so not gay.”

Because of her teaching schedule, The Dog and Pony Show is Hughes’s first solo show in several years. Although she presented it four months ago in Chicago, Hughes said she’s interested in the reaction from New York audiences.

“This is one of the few places where you feel like you get an audience open to new work, is responsive to what you’re trying to do, and really gets it,” she said. “I love the atmosphere here.”

While she’s here, Hughes plans on checking out the new crop of performance artists. They include some of her own students, Joseph Keckler and Erin Markey.

Hughes said performing was a tough way to make a living when she started out, and it’s only gotten harder.

“I suspect that when I talk to people in their twenties who are performing, they seem to know that they have this limited time where they can exist on fumes,” she said. “They know they have to find some stability, or a steady paycheck.”

“I guess I was destined to be a lesbian performance artist,” Hughes said, laughing. “Or a or veterinarian. Or a jockey.”

The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony) plays August 3 and 4 at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, between Rivington and Delancey. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For more, visit www.dixonplace.org.