Cover image of the review
Philippa Cullen and Peter Dickson working with theremin antennae in a rehearsal for Homage to Theremin II, 1972, photograph. Collection of Stephen Jones. Photo: Lillian Kristall

Dancing the Music: Philippa Cullen 1950–1975

1 Jul 2023
McClelland Gallery 18 Mar - 16 Jul 2023

Auroville—an experimental township in Tamil Nadu, Southern India—is known for its French-colonial associations, golden dome, and idealistic vision of divine consciousness and integral living. Twenty-five-year-old Phillipa Cullen, a dancer, choreographer, performance artist, and writer who was prolifically active from 1969, returned to this newly established township in May 1975. She had visited previously in 1972 and 1973 and was back to pursue her interest in the philosopher Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, as well as an unresolved romance. She tragically and unexpectedly passed two months later from medical complications after an emergency surgery, alone yet close to enlightened (her last words were “I am learning”).

At the centre of Cullen’s artistic practice was the use of electronic technologies that allowed performers to produce auditory resonances from their movements. This was a spiritually infused vision combined with a community focus; Cullen performed and taught in several schools and public spaces with the sanctified ethos of joyful expression through dance. Contents from Cullen’s archive—performance documentation, photographs, choreographic scores, instructional notes, articles, notebooks, video footage, and correspondence—are the subject of an exhibition currently on at McClelland Gallery, Dancing the Music: Philippa Cullen 1950–1975. The gallery is a sixteen-hectare site on Bunurong and Boonwurrung land dedicated to sculpture and spatial practice. Cullen spent her childhood in the bayside suburb of Beaumaris, twenty-six kilometres away. The coastal landscape is inhabited by the same tea trees, cushion bushes, and Dianellas that the artist would have been acquainted with. As such, it is fitting that the fragments of Cullen’s ephemeral practice are restaged here.

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