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The Dancer: A biography for Philippa Cullen (Evelyn Juers, Giramondo)

Dead in 1975 at 25 years old, the Australian avant-garde dancer, teacher and artist Philippa Cullen lived a tragically short life. And yet, at the time, her artistic activity cast a long shadow over the burgeoning experimental counterculture in Australia and Europe. It is the probing of this juxtaposition that seems to be the controlling purpose of Evelyn Juers’s The Dancer: A biography for Philippa Cullen (1950–1975). A sprawling work of genealogy and intellectual history, this biography positions its subject dialectically in order to illustrate both how Cullen impacted the texture of cultural history and how historical forces nonetheless imprinted themselves upon Cullen and her work. Juers deftly draws connections between Cromwell’s Puritan England, the radical theremin and electronic music experiments in Sydney’s Tin Sheds gallery and Cullen’s revolutionary dance pedagogy in Utrecht—during which she theorised dance as an articulation ‘more lucid than language’. As an artist, Cullen was a pioneer of a new intersection between art, technology and science. In performances such as ‘Lightness’ audiences were swathed in darkness and dancers created their backing music by physically interacting with electronically rigged instruments. However, for all the radicalism Cullen represents, Juers also stresses the emblematic nature of Cullen’s estrangement from home and family in Australia—the often-crushing material reality of living an antipodean bohemian’s dream of international cosmopolitanism. As Cullen admitted, the dancers ‘could not cope with the situation they had created’.

Jeremy George works as a bookseller at Readings.


Category: Reviews