The role of dance in the community

Portrait of Philippa Cullen by Lilian Kristal

What is it to play an instrument? One embraces and touches it with the intimacy of a lover and this touch produces sounds that could only be a product of that interaction. But with electronics there appears to be a remoteness: one twists a knob or switches a connection but any action one makes does not directly affect a string or a sounding membrane or a column of air. Yet this remoteness is an illusion, in actuality one’s actions are mediated through those knobs or switches (a keyboard being a collection of switches) and one is (in the live situation) as much in an embrace with the instrument as with any acoustic device.

It is this involvement – being inside the process – that is the basis of playing music. The gestures required in playing any instrument are movements as much as the motions and gestures of dance (though dance is at a larger scale).

So what is occurring in the performance situation when someone whom we would not normally consider an instrumentalist makes sounds and music from electronic instruments? This perhaps only first applied in 1965 with John Cage’s Variations V. In this production Billy Kluver designed a system of sensors (using radio antennae [theremins?] and photo-electric cells to trigger electronic sound processors), David Tudor and Gordon Mumma were the instrumentalists (their instruments being tape recorders, radios and record players) and the motions of Merce Cunningham‘s dancers triggered the electronic processing of the sounds.

Thus the dancers were a major part of the process of controlling the sound and should be considered here to be instrumentalists because they were the ones inside the operational space of aerials and light-beams defined by Kluver’s electronics. While they did not produce sounds in themselves, they selected the sounds that Tudor and Mumma were drawing from their instruments through switching and patching under control of the dancer’s motions.

Around 1969, Philippa was involved in the scene around the Tin Sheds at the University of Sydney. She became unhappy that the dancer’s role was secondary to the music to which they were working. She wanted to give the dancer the primary role in producing the music. Among the tools Philippa used to pursue this were the Theremin (specially modified to voltage-control an audio synthesiser) and later a set of pressure sensitive floors that could also voltage-control an audio synthesiser.

She researched the capabilities of these movement sensors and choreographed interactive dance works in which the performers produced the sound through direct interaction with them.

Philippa had seen an installation by Optronic Kinetics – a collective of electrical engineering students interested in the arts at the Fine Arts Workshop (aka the Tin Sheds) – that used a theremin to make sound as people explored the space of the installation. She realised that the theremin could allow a dancer to produce the sounds directly from their own movement and asked Optronic Kinetics to build a theremin for her.

In May 1970 Cullen choreographed the ballet Electronic Aspects for it and after some experimenting with a triangle of copper wire, they produced a receptive field that covered the whole stage

“with the dancers judging their distance from it and producing a changing sine tone which corresponded exactly with their position in relation to the aerial … A theremin detects the capacitance of the body, i.e. the electrical potential … Each aerial has an electric field around it which you disturb with your body. The disturbance is proportional to the mass, not to speed. [But] things are limited with one theremin and only wire for an aerial.” 3

Other experimental steps developed. One was her 1971 ballet, Utter, choreographed for the Ballet Australia Choreographic Competition. Based on phonemes from the four languages that her then partner George Alexander spoke, Utter “explored the use of the voice as a sound source for dance” and received a special mention in the competition.4 As one reviewer described, the sound came directly from the four dancers who

“hissed, chanted, droned, whispered and shrieked their own stream-of-consciousness accompaniment as they pranced around in a cleared space in the centre of the auditorium … It was … [f]ull of vitality, sometimes as beautiful as a temple frieze, sometimes deliberately ugly, occasionally just for fun.” [5] [Prerauer, 1972]

Frame from a video recording of Utter

Over that period Cullen had been attending the experimental music workshops run by Sydney composer David Ahern since 1969.[6]  Ahern had established a group of avant-garde musicians, known as AZ Music, to perform works by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, La Monte Young and others whose scores were more often graphical (or lists of instructions) than actual notated music. Cullen danced in the AZ Music productions of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape #4 (in 1970) and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning (February, 1971 [7] [Barnard, 1989]. During AZ Music Sound Ventures series she danced with electro-acoustic improvisation group Teletopa in Sound Ventures II at Inhibodress Gallery (13 April 1972). Cullen presented Utter again in April, 1972 for AZ Music’s Sound Ventures III.

According to the reviews this was the highlight of the night. David Gyger wrote in The Australian newspaper:

“there seemed to be incredible rapport between the electronic improvisations of Teletopa and the evocative dancing of Philippa Cullen.” [Gyger, 1972]

and Maria Prerauer, in her review of the evening, also in The Australian, wrote:

“But perhaps the biggest revelation of the night was not what Philippa Cullen did for dance (impressive as that was) but what her dance did for the music. It was she who usually called the tune. The change of mood, the change of pace came mostly from her. The players followed her lead intuitively. … In some strange telepathic way she became almost both composer and conductor.” 9 [Prerauer, 1972]

The electronic aspect of her work became of primary interest. She had been attending Donald Brook’s lectures in Fine Arts with Greg Schiemer, a music composition student at the University. During one of his lectures Brook had placed a theremin on the bench and it warbled and whistled away as he moved about the lecturer’s dais. They started brainstorming what we could do with this thing. [Schiemer, 10] and Cullen asked him to help her use the theremin to further her exploration of means by which dancers could directly make the music.

She also met Phil Connor, an electrical engineer, who had been experimenting with the theremin. He wanted to use it to control an audio synthesiser and designed a frequency-to-voltage converter [11] to convert the theremin signal into control voltages for an audio synthesizer [12] [Schiemer, 1988] and this combination offered a solution for producing more complex and interesting sounds from the theremin’s output especially as it might be controlled by a dancer’s movements.

In early 1972 Cullen received a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts to pursue the development of her electronic interactions and established Philippa’s Electronic Dance Ensemble with Connor, Schiemer, several dancers (including Jacqui Carroll) and other engineers interested in electronic music and computing.14

They entered an intense period of development work over the first three months of 1972. The ensemble’s objectives were “to discover and employ many of the various relationships between sound and movement which occur when using electronic instruments such as the theremin.”15 [Cullen, 1971]

Phil Connor, Manuel Nobleza and Philippa sitting on a pedestal antenna for a theremin. [Photo: Alex Ozolins]

Philippa wanted to realise the potential for the dancer to produce music through the use of body sensing devices and other forms of interactive technology. She already had the theremin that Jim McDonell of Optronic Kinetics had built for her, to which she added aerials designed for her by an architecture student, Manuel Nobleza. Among these were an S-shaped upright surface which was stable but restricted the dancer’s range and various vertical and horizontal loops of wire, some of which produced complex electric fields that made it difficult for the dancers to get consistent audio results.

Subsequently, Cullen used theremins in a performance, Homage to Theremin 2, at International House, University of Sydney, with three other dancers Jacqui Carroll, Peter Dickson and Maggie Knightly. After this performance Cullen commented that there needed to have been more time

“given to the development of skills for the dancer and musician to play the theremin. Also I think the VCS3’s should or could be more versatile if attached to a well programmed computer system specifically designed to control the sequence of aerial and patch-board (VCS) changes.” [Cullen, 1972a]

Philippa Cullen and Peter Dickson working with the wire antennae during Homage to Theremin 2. [Photo: Lillian Kristal]

After Homage to Theremn 2 Cullen went to London to attend the International Carnival of Electronic Sound (ICES 72) [6] [Cullen, 1973c]. She showed some video documentation of her work. She also performed with David Ahern’s Teletopa and with the Scratch Orchestra (co-founded by Cornelius Cardew). From London, she traveled to Munich to perform with the Scratch Orchestra at the 1972 Olympic Games Spielstrasse (the arts festival of the Munich Olympics). [Cullen, 1973c]

She then went to the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Holland, where she met some musicians and electronics engineers interested in dance who could help her further develop her interaction with the theremin. She did a performance using a couple of theremins and a synthesiser.

In a talk to the Rotterdam Dance Academy she had noted:

“Already in bio-music the human body becomes all important. Blood circulation, rate of breathing, muscle tension, eye movements, even brain waves can be detected electronically and fed back to the person so that he can learn to control these things in a previously unheard of way.” [Cullen, 1972b]

Philippa arrived back in Australia in mid-1974 and began working again with composer Greg Schiemer and dancer Jacqui Carroll. She moved into the Bush Video commune in Paddington, Sydney, where she continued to explore her radical view of the role of dance in the community [where the community is an intellectual, cultural village where minds meet in daily activities]. Bush Video was very much that type of community.

While in Europe Cullen had read M.L. Eaton’s Bio-Music [Eaton, 1974] and, recognising that biofeedback could be used as a source of sound and control voltages, she decided that she wanted to work with various bio-sensors, including an electromyogram (muscle electrical activity detector) and a breath detector.

At Bush Video she met electronics technician Ariel and together they experimented with bio-feedback to make sounds and effect video images (generally through oscilloscope displays) but she realised that although body signals could be detected there remained the problem of how could a dancer use the signal because there seemed to be “no real correspondence between these aspects of movement and the parameters of sound”. [Cullen, 1973b]

Electro-Myogram traces superimposed over an image of Philippa by Ariel. [Collage: Ariel, aka Mark Evans]

Another major performance work was the 24 Hour Concert, using Hogarth Gallery (Walker Lane, Paddington) as a base. The event ran from 6 pm on Saturday, 26th October till 6 pm on the Sunday, 27th October, 1974. Many artists were involved and much of the activities – dance performances and performances in action and poetics – took place in the gallery over the evening. On the Sunday most of the dance performances occurred in public locations and on the train system. The performance cycle was intended to follow the normal person’s cycle, from cooking, eating and sleeping through to a range of activities defined as performance such as riding on the train into the city. [Cullen, 1974b].

In late 1974 Cullen was invited to perform at the Computers and Electronics in the Arts exhibition Doug Richardson organised for Australia 75 (Canberra, 7-16 March 1975) [which itself was directed by Stefan Haag]. She bought a Synthi A (a portable version of the VCS3) which she could use with a new set of pressure-sensitive floors that Arthur Spring (a friend of Greg Schiemer’s) had built for her.

At the exhibition she worked with several artist/engineers (John Hansen, Bush Video, Phil Connor, Greg Schiemer, Chris Ellyard and Iain McLeod) and three other dancers (Helen Herbertson, Wayne Nicol and Brian Coughran]). Here the voltage output from the floors didn’t actually drive the audio synthesiser, it drove a live computer graphic drawing of the dancers’ activity on the floors. Philippa and her dancers performed regularly during the week long event.

Philippa watching the video display at Australia 75.
Philippa watching the video display at Australia 75 produced by Ellyard and McLeod’s PDP 11 from data coming from the pressure sensitive floors and colourised through Jon Hansen’s Video Synthesiser. [Photo: Peter West]

Subsequently Cullen travelled to Mildura with Melinda Brown, another of the Bush Video team, for the Mildura Sculpture Triennial where she presented a series of workshops based on her usual process of involving people from the community both as participants and as observers in dance systems intended to break their normal perceptions of what dance was about.

Cullen had a strong interest in the work of Sri Aurobindo and his ashram “Auroville” in India, having visited there on her way back from Europe. She had been feeling somewhat alienated from the computerised interactive work and wanted to go back to India. On her way she spent some time in Adelaide at the Elder Coservatorium, and then came back to Sydney to prepare for her trip to India.

She left much of her equipment at the Elder Conservatorium under the guardianship of Tristram Cary. Eventually the pressure-sensitive floors were re-discovered by the dancer Iran Sanadzadeh, who then had her own set specially built and with which she still travels and works.

While in India, to everyone’s horror Philippa died in July 1975 and experimental art in Australia lost one of its greatest inspirations. Nevertheless, in the few years that she had, Philippa brought the Australian dance, music and art worlds face-to-face with interactivity through her collaborations with technical people, musicians and video artists.

Her whole life was too big and she gave everything she had to the diverse culture of artists, musicians and technicians she inhabited, but she had had a period of roughly six extraordinary years during which she developed, with the support of a diverse group of musicians, dancers and electronics engineers, perhaps the most technically sophisticated interactive system of the period, and which may not have been surpassed since.



1. The name derives from the Greek, roughly: the distant source of ideas. [Conversation with Geoffrey Barnard, Bondi Junction, 21st November 2003.]

2. Philippa Cullen, (1973b) “Project 1973 Holland”

3. Cullen, 1972b

4. Carroll, 1975

5. Prerauer, 1972

6. Geoffrey Barnard, conversation, 21/11/03

7. Barnard, 1989

8. David Gyger, “Silhouettes on the very edge of musical experience” review of AZ Music Sound
Ventures I & II
in The Australian, 18th April 1972, p.10, (1972).

9. Maria Prerauer, “Probing into new dimensions” review of AZ Music’s Sound Ventures series
performance by the group Teletopa, which included a performance of Utter, in The Australian, 23rd April
1972, p.22, (1972)

10. Greg Schiemer, interview, 19/5/05.

11. The frequency-to-voltage converter takes the theremin output which is a sine-wave and uses it to charge up a capacitor which has a natural discharge rate. Thus if the frequency of the theremin output is faster than the discharge rate of the capacitor the voltage rises and if it is slower then the voltage drops.

12. The peak-detector differentiates the output of the frequency-to-voltage converter generating a pulse if it changes more quickly than the natural values of the differentiator timing components.

13. Greg Schiemer, “Greg Schiemer”, biographical note in John Jenkins (ed) 22 Contemporary Australian
, NMA Publications, Melbourne, (1988), also available at

14. The other engineers included Brian Campbell, Jim McDonnell, Doug Richardson and David Moore; David Smith was by now living in France. Besides Cullen the dancers were Jacqui Carroll, Dierdrie Evans and I have been unable to discover who the male dancer was.

15. Philippa Cullen, Application to the Australian Council for the Arts for assistance in 1971/72 (1971). [In the Cullen archive at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) Library, Sydney]

16. Schiemer [interview, 19/5/05] describes Connor’s approach:

“He wasn’t interested in the volume antenna, he was more interested in the fact that this audio signal would provide a frequency which could be used to produce control voltages, and instead of using an antenna to vary its amplitude which in effect weakens the signal, [locking] it into being a traditional theremin that is expressive. He saw it more in terms of a good robust signal, you know, from rail-to-rail at all frequencies, if that’s at all possible which it really isn’t when you get the pulse when it’s just starting to break out of the null position. But these pulses, the idea of being able to square them and measure the space, the interval, between rising or falling edges, that was his conception of how the theremin should work.”

10. from the 14th to the 25th August, 1972.

13. [Schiemer, 1988]