Gurmeet Kaur reviews The Dancer by Evelyn Juers

The Dancer

by Evelyn Juers


Reviewed by GURMEET KAUR



The Dancer is an unusual biography. Dedicated to the subject, it is written ‘for’ rather than about Phillipa Cullen. The author’s close relationship with Cullen determines the biographer’s intentions — Juers and Cullen were university friends and remained in touch until she unexpectedly died at the age of 25. The book is a memorial, an extended eulogy and an archival object that solidifies Cullen’s legacy in Australian experimental dance history. It is also a poetic narrative that documents the events, ideas and people orbiting around Cullen in 1960s and 1970s Australia.

On biography, Hermione Lee writes that it’s ‘like lives…made up of contested objects – relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable’. Juers spends years researching Cullen’s life, starting with a single folder of letters that extended into an archive taking up ‘a whole filing cabinet, large storage containers, much of my computer desktop and the top of my desk (7)’. The result is an extensive narrative totalling 550 pages, made up of first-person accounts detailing Cullen’s life through letters, interviews, reviews and diary entries. These ‘relics’ help Juers to animate Cullen’s voice and ‘let her speak for herself as much as possible (6)’, while the author’s research places Cullen in a broader history of colonialisation and global travel. Juers balances this tension between letting ‘contested objects’ speak for themselves and using historical research to contextualise and problematise the subject. However, in some places, the writing also reproduces the inequities of the time.

Born in Melbourne in 1950, Cullen enrolled in dance school at an early age, before moving to Sydney as a young child where she remained. She attended University of Sydney, studied Anthropology, English, Italian and Philosophy and taught dance on the lawn of the university quadrangle. Cullen experimented with dance and electronics in this early digital era with theremins, an electronic instrument that played music by controlling the electromagnetic field around the instrument rather than any direct contact. Cullen choreographed performances with theremins controlled by the dancers’ movement to generate music. She applied for funding from the newly formed Australia Council in 1973 and travelled to UK, Germany, Netherlands, Ghana, Nepal and India to refine her practice. On her return to Australia in 1974, she was invited by cultural institutions across Australia to perform but felt ‘frustrated by Australia’s cultural cringe and lack of responsiveness to her own work’ (478). In April 1975, Cullen returned to India but quickly became sick and died within months of being in Kodiakanal, India.

Divided into four sections, The Dancer begins with Cullen’s ancestral history. Spanning as far back as 14th century, Juers maps Cullen’s origins in Leicestershire, London and Cornwall in England and Kilkenny in Ireland, threading tenuous connections to ancestors who moved with the British empire to India, Tobago, Jamaica, and more. In Australia, they arrived as ‘free settlers’, playing an active part in the colonial project:

By the early twentieth century the Aboriginal population south of Sydney had diminished to thirty survivors. Their descendants preserve their culture, tell their stories and mourn those who were killed, who died of disease, or who were dispossessed in the frontier wars between the Indigenous people and the newcomers (29).

Decades before Cullen is born, this is the horrific history of slavery, genocide and dispossession on lands her ancestors ‘settled and this was the history – Aboriginal and colonial – in which they and others of their family played a part (34)’. This truth-telling however raises more questions than it answers, particularly in the use of colonial language. Examples like above are counteracted by pages of colonial history written from the oppressor’s view:

Some have argued that in his plan to civilise Aboriginal people, Macquarie is well intentioned. He had a scheme. Ceremoniously he presented tribal chiefs with engraved breastplates. At Parramatta he established a Native School. Some children came voluntarily while others were abducted and forcibly taken there. People started hiding their children for fear of having them stolen. He held a series of Native Conferences, where he served roast beef and ale and let the chiefs sit on chairs. When Aboriginal people visited him, he was a genial host. To those who were most friendly and useful, he gave gifts, including land, livestock and boats (33).

Perhaps Juers’s preference here is to present a historical account authenticated by voices of its time, leading her to borrow language from primary archival materials. But placed against colonial brutality, such summaries are jarring to read, especially when the minimising, bureaucratic and colonial language is not sufficiently contextualised, simply taken from the past and placed into the present. For instance, could the word ‘civilised’ and ‘native’ have been in quotation marks so that it is clear it belongs in the past? Could the idea of ‘gifts’ have been further analysed through the explanation of terra nullius, knowing that the land Macquarie ‘gifted’ was stolen? Could the ‘friendly and useful’ behaviour have been further explained, perhaps as a protective mechanism against a belligerent colonial campaign of genocide? There are repeated uses of words like ‘explorer’, ‘expedition’, and land ‘grants’ across this section, all of which centre the perspective of the coloniser without additional interrogation.

This reproduces colonial violence, recentering the colonial narrative, and the absence of Aboriginal voices (historical and contemporary) relegates First Nations people to a mythic past. Even though Juers later writes that ‘we now regard those settlers’ histories through a different lens, in which the colonists’ gains were the Aboriginal people’s tragic losses (53)’, it does not negate for the surprising amount of space given to colonial voices through which First Nations history is mediated. The link between Cullen’s story as a dancer and her ancestral past feels arbitrary at times; Juers’s desire to include this genealogical research is possibly weighted here with the responsibility to write ‘for’ Cullen rather than the contemporary reader.

Pre-empting this critique, Juers states in the prologue that her aim is to take ‘a larger perspective, which allows intrinsic and extrinsic material, the wondrous and the mundane, the directions and the digressions, to determine the shape of this biographical narrative (8).’ This expansive approach does lead to some interesting research which places Cullen in the wider post-colonial context. Cullen ‘felt a strong affinity with Eastern forms of dance (235)’ and was drawn to learn about ancient practices, to ground the development of her new ideas. In an era of New Age spiritualism, the hippie trail, and the founding of self-determining nations, Cullen travelled to the township of Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India. Established in 1968 by the French spiritualist Mirra Alfassa, Auroville is dedicated to the teachings of the Indian spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo and was founded as a place to practice his philosophy, quickly becoming a ‘colony of foreigners. A postcolonial extension of the age-old colonial civilising mission (423)’, Juers’s historical research in this part holds westerners to account, highlighting their role in perpetuating colonial structures even today as Auroville ‘relies largely on Tamil labour and still adheres to colonial hierarchies (424)’. Devoid of local cultural practices, the Auroville project participated in historical and political amnesia, its early promotional material offering it as ‘a physical space wherein individuals could leave both the past and the present behind (423)’ at a time when the Indian Civil Rights movement was successful in ejecting Britain and the nation was coming to terms with its political self-determination.

This setting situates the reader in understanding why Cullen and her contemporaries like Viidikas, Leves and others gravitated to India in places like Auroville and later Kodaikanal (‘a small town created in the 1840s by American missionaries (514)’) in South India, rather than other places in the subcontinent. This was a politically conscious time around the world and especially in India in the aftermath of Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War. It makes sense that westerners seeking spiritual guidance in post-colonial India ended up in sheltered ashrams (often designed with them in mind like the one in Auroville) and perhaps also why Cullen wanted to return to Auroville to better understand ‘an enlightened movement groping for holistic reality (344)’.

While Juers’s primary materials raises questions about discriminatory attitudes of the time, the writer attempts to balance this mostly with historical research to frame the past. But in sections when Juers strips way both archives and research and leans into memoir, the writing becomes most moving. Towards the end of The Dancer, Juers describes Phillipa Cullen’s life as ‘a scattering. A gathering. A ballet. Pain. Body twists, leg extensions, pulling by arms, slow rolls, improvisations, hip socket rotation, inhale and exhale, rise and fall (532).’

In this final section, Juers’s grief for her lost friend is palpable as she asks ‘at dusk, before she lost consciousness, what came to the fore? A summoning of strength? A parade? (532)’, her syntax becoming fragmented, arranged in a heavy block, before drifting again on white page. Although The Dancer provoked discomfort in its complicated portrayal of colonial and post-colonial histories, Juers’s biography is most successful when it explores her personal response to the tragic death of Phillipa Cullen.

GURMEET KAUR is a critic and poet living on Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung Country. Her work has appeared in AmbitCorditeSydney Review of BooksPerilKill Your DarlingsThe Victorian Writer, and elsewhere. She is currently one of KYD‘s 2023 New Critics.