The Dancer: A Biography for Philippa Cullen

Evelyn Juers

The Dancer: A Biography for Philippa Cullen
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The Dancer: A Biography for Philippa Cullen

Evelyn Juers

The new book by prize-winning biographer Evelyn Juers, author of The House of Exile and The Recluse, portrays the life and background of a pioneering Australian dancer who died at the age of twenty-five in a remote town in India.

A uniquely talented dancer and choreographer, Philippa Cullen grew up in Australia in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1970s, driven by the idea of dancing her own music, she was at the forefront of the new electronic music movement, working internationally with performers, avant-garde composers, engineers and mathematicians to build and experiment with theremins and movement-sensitive floors, which she called body-instruments. She had a unique sense of purpose, read widely, travelled the world, and danced at opera houses, art galleries and festivals, on streets and bridges, trains, clifftops, rooftops. She wrote, I would define dance as an outer manifestation of inner energy in an articulation more lucid than language. An embodiment of the artistic aspirations of her age, she died alone in a remote hill town in southern India in 1975.

With detailed reference to Cullen’s personal papers and the recollections of those who knew her, and with her characteristic flair for drawing connections to bring in larger perspectives, Evelyn Juers' The Dancer is at once an intimate and wide-ranging biography, a portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Review

The dancer, Philippa Cullen, died tragically in India at the age of 25. Evelyn Juers’ biography of this complex young woman runs to 550 pages. You may think, do Cullen’s life and achievements justify the length? I think probably yes, and Juers, a friend of Cullen’s, does her life justice.

In her short life Cullen fit in a lot. At the age of eight she became a pupil of the Bodenwieser Dance Studio in Sydney. At Sydney University she studied Arts with the goal of becoming a teacher of dance as well as a dancer. She was interested in dance as a creative process, particularly how dance could generate its own music. This led to an interest in electronic music and the theremin, an electronic instrument that generates sound through movement. These early fascinations would later see her using pressure sensitive floors that would generate music from the dancer’s movements.

Cullen also dove into personal relationships that affirmed her creative pursuits. She had a longstanding affair with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as well as Stockhausen’s wife’s lover; she pursued numerous personal relationships with fellow creatives, often conducting multiple relationships at the same time. On a visit to India, she visited the utopian community of Auroville and fell in love again. She was determined to go back, but on her return, her lover was no longer interested. She fell seriously ill and, within a short time, died.

Cullen kept extensive diaries and Juers has interviewed many of her surviving friends and contemporaries and used these to create a unique biography of a unique woman. One can only imagine what Philippa Cullen might have achieved had her life not been cut so short.


Mark Rubbo is the managing director of Readings.

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