Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Choreographing Dirt: Performances of/against the Nature/Culture Divide

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Jonathan Chambers

Second Advisor

Scott Magelssen (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Margaret Yacobucci (Committee Member)


In this dissertation I explore performances in which dirt operates as a critical choreographic element, a dynamic partner in an exchange. In each chapter, dirt functions as a complex site of interaction between human and non-human bodies that structures or choreographs the movement of the participant or performer. Using the discourses of ecocriticism, ecofeminism, postmodernism, and performance studies, I employ close readings of the National Park Service, Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play as a dramatic text, and productions of Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring and Eveoke Dance Theatre's Las Mariposasto demonstrate how social, dramatic, performative, and theatrical representations of the natural world inform humans' understanding of their relationship with it.

In Chapter One, I explore the representation and performance of "wilderness" in Shenandoah National Park, analyzing the history, construction, and choreography of space in the park to establish that the park's performance of "wilderness" functions as symbol of the American frontier and simulacrum of the wild. In Chapter Two, I examine the unearthing of dirt in The America Play through the character of the Foundling Father who digs up the past in order to create "new" historical events. In Chapter Three, I focus on the relationship between dancer and peat in The Rite of Spring , investigating the significance of the ways in which the onstage peat and the dancers' bodies mark each other. In Chapter Four, I analyze the relationship between dancers and dirt in Las Mariposas , exploring the inter-species interactions between the organisms in the dirt and on the dancers' skin.

Together, these analyses allow critical interrogations of the entrenched human notions of the so-called nature/culture divide. Bodies partner not only with the dirt, but also with the myriad species that reside in the dirt. This creates an ecologically complex pas de deux that evokes an intricate rethinking of conceptions of species and demonstrates that interchanges between humans and more-than-humans are porous and trans-corporeal. Each case study testifies that performance has the potential to dismantle master narratives, permeate borders, and create alternate modes of understanding of traditional Western anthropocentric, speciesist tendencies in dance and theatre.