"Dressaged Animality": Human and Animal Actors in Contemporary Performance

Lisa Moravec

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Humans have had to increasingly perform like dressaged animals since the second-half of the twentieth-century. The question how we train, rehearse, and perform together, without discriminating against other human and non-human animals in competitive capitalism remains urgent. The dissertation analyses the relation between ‘societal dressage’ and the ‘embodied animality’ that humans and animals share by theorising and historicising a selection of contemporary artistic performance works by American, British, and European artists in which humans perform with, or without real animals in between the late 1960s until the late 2010s. Conceiving of ‘animality’ as being incorporated in, as well as generating artists’ ‘self-dressaged’ performances that critique the very same infrastructurally installed economic and political ‘dressage mechanism’ within which their work operates, the thesis develops the dialectical concept of ‘dressaged animality’ as a mode of societal critique. It proposes that the selected artistic performances that include by humans danced, real, or mediated animals are produced because of the tensions operating between societal dressage, self-dressage, and embodied human and animal animality, and argues for the social relevance and value of artistic work and critique that stem from human actors’ embodied animality.

This transdisciplinary thesis brings art historical, animal and performance study methodologies together, and is framed with Henri Lefebvre’s theory of dressage (1991) which critiques the everyday through Marxist analysis. The dissertation’s twelve artistic performance studies are based on the performances’ photographic documentations and costumes, to which I refer as ‘performance leftovers’. Across four chapters, the thesis investigates performative and material culture and outlines the concept of ‘dressaged animality’ is societally performed: Chapter I, ‘Performance Histories’, framed by Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s theory of Englightenment and Adorno’s aesthetic and moral theory, conceptualises the historically persisting, ethico-political ‘mechanisms of dressage’, operating across the Royal performance practices of the military, the manège, and dance in the absolutist regime in early modern France. Chapter II, ‘The Critique of Dressage: Dancing Horses’, analyses Rose English, Yvonne Rainer, Mike Kelley, and Kate Foley’s by human performed horse dances with a focus on their performance costumes. I draw here on both, Marxist and feminst affect theories (Ngai, Haraway, and Berlant) and argue that although these artistic live performances have been incorporated into the neoliberal capitalist operations of the object-based art industry by the 2010s, they remain socially relevant because of their implicit infrastructural critique of patriarchal and economic dressage. Chapter III, ‘The Ethics of Dressage: “Non-Acting” Dressage Acts’, examines Rose English, Joseph Beuys, and Bartabas’s experimental stage performances with real animals. It engages with new feminist materialist theories, and argues for a more mutually interactive ‘non-acting’ form of human-animal acting, operating between acting and not-acting. Chapter IV, ‘The Nature of Dressage: Animal Machines’ draws explicitly on Marxist analysis (Marx, Sohn-Rethel, Federici) and examines Robert Morris, Mark Wallinger, Diana Thater, and Tamara Grcic’s visual abstractions of the sportive horse-racing leisure time industry. It argues that the artists’ image-based, representational critiques of capitalism’s competitive performance culture put at stake at the end of the second-half of the twentieth-century that animals have to, similar to humans, perform as technological means by exposing the time-limited processes of animal dressage.

To trouble the conception that human and animal actors can merely societally realise themselves as passively representative and machinically performing actors within the global capitalist infrastructues, the thesis provides a performance theory of dressage, and argues that performance’s social potential lies in critiquing its societal dressage, with human and animal animality.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Parker-Starbuck, Jennifer, Supervisor
  • Guy, Georgina, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jun 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 2022


  • contemporary performance
  • animal studies
  • Art History and Theory
  • aesthetic philosophy
  • political economy
  • contemporary dance
  • Rose English

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