Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2021

The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers

Just scraping in for #AusReadingMonth at Brona’s This Reading Life, Evelyn Juers’ magnificent bio of the dancer Philippa Cullen (1950–1975) is a book that will, I think, appeal to different kinds of readers.  Readers who are interested in the arts, especially dance; readers who are interested in the art of biography; and readers who are interested in Australian innovation and creativity.

For me, the middle section of this biography is the most intriguing.  The book begins with an explanation of Juers’ personal relationship with Philippa Cullen, relevant partly because she died so tragically young at 25, and partly because it explains the biographer’s approach to the task.  Part One is about Cullen’s family history, on both her mother’s and father’s side. Part Two is about her childhood in Beaumaris and Sydney and her coming of age, and I posted a Sensational Snippet from this part about Juer’s inclusion of the history of the Cullen house in the bio.  But it’s Part Three that transfixed me…

At the risk of provoking howls of dismay, I should preface my thoughts with the truth about my lack of experience with dance as an art form.  As a child I was taken to the ballet where I hated the way the beautiful music was drowned out by the thumping of the ballet-shoe blocks on the floor.  (We had seats near the front.) Much later, I saw a doco about the damage done to the feet of ballerinas from dancing en pointe, and decided then and there that I would never pay to watch women ruin their feet like that.  We wouldn’t do it to animals, but it is done to women (but not men, of course) in the name of art.  So much for ballet…

I do like the kind of dancing that Hollywood made famous in toe-tapping musicals.  I could watch Fred and Ginger all day, but that kind of dancing is not popular any more.  Those magnificent dancing troupes depended on dozens of underpaid young women putting in hours of practice to get the choreography perfect, and nobody is willing to pay the real cost of that kind of perfection these days.  I also occasionally like watching competitive ballroom dancing with the jazzy costumes on TV, but I’ve never seen it live.

But modern dance — reeling and writhing or physical jerks? Call me a philistine if you like, but it doesn’t interest me at all.  Juers’ achievement with this book is to make a bio of a dancer who I’ve never heard of, compulsively readable to someone like me.  For anyone interested in dance, it will be unputdownable.

I was fascinated by Philippa Cullen’s conception of dance… what she wanted to do was to integrate the movement of the body with the music of the theremin.  Her aim is for the dancer to have precise control of volume, duration, pitch, timbre and location, and for dancers to be able to control each other’s sound. 

Now, if you’re not familiar with the theramin, watch this video of Celia Sheen’s rendition of that eerie theme for Midsomer Murders, and pay particular attention to the tiny movements of her fingers which produce variations in tone, pitch, duration and volume.  What Philippa Cullen wanted to do was to achieve similar effects using the whole body. If only there were a video of one of her performances!

Notice at the end of the video too, the credit for the designer of the theremin, Tony Henk.  You can’t just buy a theremin and take lessons like you can with a guitar or a clarinet.  It has to be built, by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But, barely out of her teens, Philippa applies for a travel grant from the Australia Council and sets off alone for Europe where (despite not speaking German and having awkward, demoralising and sometimes disturbing relationships with some horrible men as well) she undertakes incredibly theoretical studies to achieve her ambitions.

Her studies are intense.  She explores mathematical possibilities, tying them to inter-disciplinary fields, electro-acoustics and voltage dividers.  Learns about the relationship between charge and voltage.  Network Theory.  Kirkoff’s Law.  Systems Theory.  Open loops and feedback loops.  Books on algebra.  Robert E. Ornstein on time perception.

She wants to understand the science and concepts of electronics and writes notes on electronic equipment, octave filters, reverberation.  (p.291)

She even wants to create floors that interact with movement — with dance — and so make music. She wants equipment with built-in random switches, not with the rigidity of a computer program.  As she builds her own equipment, she has specific requirements:

Dancers need a sensitive spot in the centre where they can dance solo.  Another at the back of the stage where they create silence.  They need peripheries.  What’s important is the dancers’ awareness of the anticipation and delay of sound. (p.292).

She is disappointed to find that in the field that interested her, Australia was more advanced than Europe, but she persists. She attends performances of Noh theatre in Munich, discovers the gestural language in Spenser’s Faerie Queen,  and traditions of chivalry and courtly love.  She abandons classical dance classes and switches to mime, and starts an electronic dance workshop which attracts about a dozen students. She visits museums and art galleries and reads voraciously, everything from Baldwin to Steinbeck, biographies, histories, histories of dance, and Manford L. Eaton’s Bio-Music: biological feedback experimental music systems. She makes notes on labyrinths and mandalas after reading Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala.  (As a girl, she was impressed by Patrick White’s Voss. His faith in Australia and a sense of a higher purpose in life inspired her to stop wasting her energy and concentrate on dance.) 

In an essay titled ‘Towards a Philosophy of Dance’ in 1973, she…

…argues for the curious correspondence between the rhythms of the body and the rhythms of nature, where early music — the tambourine, African drums — is a kind of reaction or interjection, and dance — for her — is not communication but an act of rejoicing.  She surveys dance in other and older societies, as a ritual of birth, initiation, marriage, harvest, war, and death, until those functions changed and dance became a form of entertainment.  But she believes we can rediscover — repossess — the social function and power of dance.  (p.344)

In Rotterdam, Philippa’s Electronic Dance Ensemble performs Floor Piece No 1 and Homage to Theremin No 3. She introduces the work like this:

This evening…by showing a wide variety of movement detectors, will reveal…different aspects of dance, such as speed, tension, pressure, position, direction.  Each of which has a different function in the music, such as frequency, volume, timbre, duration. The quality of the sound depends on the precision of the movement.  She explains that it is not multimedia, but rather in the realm of intermedia.  The items evolve with the situations of control becoming more complex and the effect becoming more simple. Each item will show a different use of the movement-detecting instruments — including video cameras and tapes (which require a special light condition), a muscle potentiometer, theremins with aerials, accelerometer, breath detectors, floor vibrators, voltage control sound equipment — all of which have had to be built. (p.336)

The creativity and innovation involved in this project is just amazing.

To get some idea of how this worked, you can see some photos here, and there’s a video of a contemporary performance inspired by Cullen’s work here.  Unfortunately they’ve concealed the techno-gadgetry behind the curtain so you can’t see any of it.

About the author:

Evelyn Juers wrote her doctorate on the biographies of the Brontës. A biographer, essayist and critic, she has contributed to major Australian and international publications. Her collective biography House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann won the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction. It was published in the US, UK, France, Spain and Italy. Her biography of Eliza Donnithorne, The Recluse, was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the Magarey Medal for Biography.

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.


  1. Her life sounds interesting but probably not a book I would read. I go though phases with biographies. I agree about the types of dance you like. I love the old stuff, stage musicals, tap dance especially as in Tap Dogs several years ago. I like the music in ballet but don’t have a lot of patience for it. Hadn’t though much about their feet, but now you point that out. Ow. Modern dance leaves me cold too. We can’t be expected to like everything!!


    • That’s true, vive la difference!


  2. We had a theremin at the Con here for a while, alas I didn’t have a chance to have a go at it Lisa! I think someone used to playing piano/harp would manage it from watching the video?

    I don’t think any kind of dance is easy on the body really – tap dancing is really tough on the knees. I did ballroom dancing for a long time and it wrecked my knees and feet. It’s quite frustrating to be the woman dancing backwards all the time too!

    There are a lot of young people here learning to tap dance, there’s a school for it here, so perhaps this lovely dance form will become popular again!

    I’d definitely read this, thanks for a most interesting review!


    • It’s a fascinating instrument, I think, but watching the delicacy of Celia Sheen, I can’t imagine using the whole body to play it.
      I used to like those social dances like the Barn Dance which I learned at school, but dancing foxtrots and waltzes to smooth big band jazz like the British Dance Bands is what I like best. But I guess doing any kind of activity that taxes the body is hard on some part of it.


  3. […] Evelyn Juers | The Dancer (non-fiction) (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]


  4. […] Evelyn Juers’ The dancer: A biography for Philippa Cullen (biography): “richly researched cultural history” (Georgie Williamson) (Lisa’s review) […]


  5. […] The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers […]


  6. I stumbled across this biography and found it wonderful. I was dancing in those years but waylaid by family etc so couldn’t persue dance. Philippa Cullen was amazing. I found the biography style of Juers’ writing challenging but ultimately successful. Cullen’s exploration of the relationship between body and sound and her understanding of dance as ritual rather than performance was profound. Also great to revisit the 70’s and all the hopes and dreams of that era. A very long book that maybe could have benefitted from some editing but take it slowly Jill


    • Hello Jill, thank you for your comment, I am glad that this innovative biographer has found the right kind of reader.
      I find myself thinking about Cullen more than I expected to. I was driving home from my Latin class on Monday when ABC Classic played the theme music that we all know from Midsummer Murders, and it immediately reminded me of the challenge and intense control that the musician has to have to play an instrument like the theremin when it must be played without touch… and then, to think of Cullen using her body to do the same thing.
      A good biography does this, I think, it brings the subject into focus for the duration of the book, but the ideas and aspirations of that subject stay for much longer.


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