Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2021

Sensational Snippets: The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers

Novellas in November is when we’re all reading short books, but Yours Truly is also taking the opportunity to tackle a couple of chunksters as well.  By day, Dan Sleigh’s monumental Islands is on the coffee table, gradually being whittled down from its 768 pages, while on the table in The Left Wing (which is where I read non-fiction over breakfast and lunch) I have Evelyn Juer’s 592 page biography of the dancer Philippa Cullen (1950–1975).

This is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

Prize-winning biographer Evelyn Juers, author of House of Exile and The Recluse, portrays the life and background of a pioneering Australian dancer, who died in tragic circumstances at the age of twenty-five.

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 strong 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.

I have just started reading Part II (which follows Cullen’s family history in Part I) and greatly enjoyed reading about Philippa’s childhood in Beaumaris.  She lived in similar circumstances to The Spouse who hails from the same then newly developed beachside suburb, which in the 1950s was a paradise for children to roam free and unsupervised.  I read excerpts to him and he enjoyed revisiting his childhood through Juers’ prose.  But what made me pause to share this Sensational Snippet was what Juers has to say about her distinctively discursive style in biography.

After the Beaumaris section, the biography deviates from the conventional biographical pathway.  Juers tells us that in 1958, the Cullens moved to Sydney where Jim Cullen took up a teaching and research position at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.  Philippa was eight then, and she started dance classes at the Bodenwieser Studio and was taught by the dancer, choreographer and pioneer of expressive dance Gertrud Bodenwieser (1890-1959). But from pages about Bodenwieser and her legacy, Juers switches to the sad story of the Ramsays, a family in mourning after tragic deaths in WW1 and WW2.  The Cullens had rented the flat that had been subdivided from the Ramsay family home Trevallyn, and Juers then explains why she included the story of this house in this biography.

I write about predecessors — prepossessors — because homes are intimate places where we are always somehow kinned (Seamus Heaney’s archaic word) with those whose space we share not just simultaneously but also sequentially in a broader and older sense.  A residence is a layered site even if we’re mostly unaware of who lived there before us, or inherently, lives there still.  Ourself behind ourself concealed was the poet Emily Dickinson’s sense of the spaces she inhabited, her century, her town, her rooms, her body, her mind.  And Australia in the mid twentieth century often seemed shrouded in an opacity of silences and concealments of the past.

On a sandstone ledge at the very back of a suburban garden bordering on bushland, a schoolfriend peeled back a layer of matted leaves and moss to show you an ancient rock carving.  It’s a secret.  Nobody knows it’s there.  Or you heard that your neighbour’s relative’s war medals and telegrams were kept in a shoe box in a corner of a garage and one day the shoe box was accidentally thrown out.  Or that another neighbour who always wore black and collected African violets, an elderly music teacher at a private school, was a spinster — what did that word even mean — because her fiancé had not returned from the war.  Red poppies were worn on Remembrance Day, like wounds.  Foreign names were shortened or exchanged for something pronounceable that you didn’t need to spell. In some houses there’d be a lonely picture on an otherwise bare wall, in a Russian household it was of a birch forest, in your Italian friend’s lounge room, a moonlit Mediterranean bay.  Sometimes there’d be a painting of a ghost gum with a broken branch pointing like an arrow into the landscape.  You learned much later the variations of that tree, and other magnificent works, were painted by Albert (Elea) Namatjira, a Western Arrernte-speaking artist born in 1902, died in 1959, and that he and his wife were the Aboriginal people to be granted Australian citizenship.  (pp.132-3)

I like this idea.  I like knowing the story of my house… I’ve already posted about that here.  I’m not sure I agree entirely with what Juers says because the people who merrily rip down old houses in my neighbourhood and replace them with grey or beige townhouses seem to have no sense of even the recent past of their homesite.  It’s also not so long ago that I shared with a new resident the inspiring story of his predecessor Nello, who ran our local trattoria and at 15 had been a partisan with the Italians.  My new neighbour was polite, but clearly not interested.  OTOH my immediate neighbours wanted to know if their predecessors had been happy, and they were genuinely pleased to know that they were living in a house full of great memories.

Did the tragic story of the Ramsays affect the Cullens in any way?  I shall have to read on to find out, but my strong suspicion is that a child who’d enjoyed a free-range childhood in the bushland blocks of Beaumaris with its unmade roads, would have taken time to adjust to living in a flat.


Book details:

Author: Evelyn Juers
Title: The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2021
Cover design by Jenny Grigg
ISBN: 9781925818727, paperback with flaps, 592 pages.
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo, but I also had a copy through my prose subscription.

You can buy a copy direct from the Giramondo website, or good bookshops everywhere.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.


Responses

  1. Good luck on mixing chunksters and novellas – sounds like the perfect combination! :D

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    • I’ve got a nice little routine happening: Latin revision before dinner, French revision after. Then read chunkster for an hour, then go to bed with a novella. If not finished by lights out, that’s the perfect reason to stay in bed in the morning till I reach the last page!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. […] Evelyn Juers | The Dancer (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  3. There’s a big interest in house history here at the moment with a fabulous series on BBC called (I think) A House in Time. Sadly I’ve never lived in any house that was old enough to have a history…

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    • Yes, it’s ironic isn’t it? I think that’s the norm for most people!

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