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  • Animals Love Theatre
  • Rachel Rosenthal (bio)

The use of animals in performance has always given me the creeps, if not outraged me. I have rarely been aware of artists using animals in a way that was respectful and humane. Rats, for example, have been decapitated and burned to death, starved, incarcerated, mocked. Easy victims with no escape or opportunity to fight back, animals were often the unwilling illustrations of humanity's callousness toward and dominance over other species; or they were anthropomorphized and made to embody and represent human foibles or defects. Placing them in an "art" context didn't hide the playing out of age-old attitudes vis-à-vis animals and our need to control and often hurt and kill them.

No art theory or concept can excuse the immoral use of animals in art. Very few artists have demonstrated an ethical approach to including other species in their performances, or to incorporate them with any sensitivity. I remember once seeing a performer who did a piece with her white pet rat. She simply let her rat wander all over the stage while she performed, which the rat did, as an obviously seasoned performer. That was lovely, and an exception to the rule. I have included my and others' companion animals in my pieces over the decades. The Others (1984) integrated around 35 different kinds of animals—dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, farm animals, research animals, pet rats, exotics, horses, and pigs! The piece highlighted our human relationships with nonhuman beings. It was performed in Los Angeles at the Japan/America Theatre; in La Jolla in the Museum of Contemporary Art; in North Carolina in the State University of Raleigh. When onstage, the animals were left to just be themselves. The unmounted horse walked, the monkeys scrambled around on and off their attendant person, the birds perched on hands, a turkey pecked at seeds on the floor, the boas were draped around necks. It was a thrilling show, addressing our views of "the others" according to utility, affection, dominance, mythology and religion, poetry and science. At times I played the animal, at times the exploiter, sometimes myself. Toward the end there was a carousel of animals to live music. Each of the

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Figure 1.

Rachel Rosenthal, Traps, Espace DBD, Los Angeles, 1982. (Courtesy of the artist)

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beasts told his or her name via the human attendant and received a flower; it concluded with a voice-over while, on a platform, I played with my dog and cat.

Traps (1982) was a piece in which my dog Zatoichi was featured, not in person but in slides and in the script; my rat, Tatti Wattles, was present. Tatti came out from under my table at the end of the piece and traveled on my arm around the stage as images of my hands and fingers grooming him were projected large upon the back wall. The piece had a hopeful ending.

Gaia First Version (1983) was a site-specific performance conceived for the high, pink brick staircase outside Royce Hall at UCLA [University of California-Los Angeles]. It dealt with the Earth and our relation to it; toward the end, a large number of people in lovely regalia descended the steps, accompanying their dogs. The spectators on the lawn below could then meet and play with the dogs—and were encouraged to pet each other!

I have featured or referred to animals throughout my career of about 40 full-length pieces. Timepiece (1996) began with an image of linear versus circular time. Linear time was personified by a butoh dancer slowly advancing in a straight line; circular time was represented by a videotape of my dog Barney Bear, indefatigably running in circles after a ball, catching it, returning and dropping it, and starting all over again without end. The eponymous performance Zatoichi, created after the dog's death at 19 years of age in 1989, was totally about him, his entire life, through his final years. It was a funny and sad solo. Almost all my pieces have featured a central or peripheral reference to animals.

My most recent piece, performed in 2005...