what a feeling: ellen van schuylenburch, the original contemporary dancer shares her tips for breaking the rules in the most elegant of ways

The iconoclastic contemporary dancer Ellen Van Schuylenburch gives The Fifth Sense her modus operandi for maintaining a long-standing career in a creative discipline she has an unending passion for. 

Despite her calm demeanour, Ellen Van Schuylenburch has an intense and thoughtful air – having danced her way around the world, from an introverted child discovering dance to joining the Nederlands Dans Theater to learning dance under revered choreographer Merce Cunningham’s tutelage, to becoming Michael Clark’s dance partner in the infamous conceptual piece New Puritans. Her compulsion and passion to express herself via a physicality that demands a sense of focus and determination is no mean feat. In a world that is structured traditionally as male dancer / female dancer; Ellen’s gentle androgyny, combined with her work with Michael Clark, helped shift that particular glass ceiling. And how exactly did she get there? Here’s how...

"having passion for something is a way of escaping the things we have to deal with in our everyday existence"

Dedication, discipline and escapism. 

I think that having passion for something is a way of escaping the things we have to deal with in our everyday existence. You have to work to make money – to live, but when you are in a studio you’re in that zone. It’s my art. Dance releases endorphins, you literally get a high out of it – and that is very satisfactory. It gives you a lot of happiness although when you really decide to become a professional dancer you have to become incredibly selfish – everything becomes about dance. Everything hinges on dedication and discipline – but because you love it so much, discipline is not such a big deal.  When I first started dancing in the Netherlands, all I wanted was to join this big famous company where you had to be a good dancer. It was a repertory company and it made me realise I didn’t want to perform in this format. I knew I wanted to work for one choreographer. Who was the most wonderful, passionate choreographer in the world? Merce Cunningham. So I had to get there. And I did! I’d seen his group perform in Holland in 1970 and fell in love. 

Open your mind.

The piece I saw was a revelation – beautiful chaos. One piece had sounds made by John Cage who was in the auditorium shooting a gun. It was an avant-garde statement about perceived notions; they weren’t going to behave and they definitely weren’t behaving. You had the festival audience in their finery and then you see these three beautiful ballerinas performing slow adagios. Merce Cunningham on a bike, cycling around the stage and then later, dancing. I was in love. I told my ballet master that I had to go to New York and they arranged a grant for me to go and study there for a year. This was in 1978. I hadn’t been exposed to much – just life in the city where I grew up. Moving to New York meant that all of a sudden I could be myself. Merce looked at the way you moved and your innate way of being – as well as the way you focused in class, where your attention was and how you moved through space. 

Have fun.

I accidentally became famous – I was living on the Bowery in a loft, above a liquor store. I lived with two girls who were also dancers and a guy who was a musician. Someone called and asked me to audition for this singer called Cyndi Lauper and be in the video for her song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. You needed “an East Village look” and be able to dance. I went to the audition, learnt the choreography, and I got the job. Cyndi was really nice, we wore her clothes because she wanted to make sure we looked the way she wanted. It became a big hit because of MTV exposure. Wherever I went people would recognise me and sing the song to me. 

Meet like-minded people.

I met Michael Clark in London – I came over to perform at Dance Umbrella – I’d seen him in the Merce Cunningham studio and we became friends. We loved the same bands, especially The Fall. I passionately loved these bands and when I came to London in 1983 Michael asked if I wanted to duet with him, of course I said yes. We started rehearsing but I had nowhere to live so I stayed with Michael in Westbourne Park. There was very little money around at the time. Leigh Bowery made our costumes, Jeffery Hinton filmed New Puritan’s performance, a duet Michael and I danced. Michael asked me if I wanted to stay in London, I thought about it and agreed. He shared all of his friends with me, Leigh, Trojan, and artists Angus Cook and Cerith Wynn Evans. Immediately having a group of people to belong to helped a lot, otherwise it’s pretty lonely. I danced with Michael until 1990, and then started again in 2009 when I performed Swamp. What was amazing about Michael’s work of that period is how interwoven it was with what was happening around us. It was a very fortunate constellation of people at this particular time, which made it so incredible. We were such a gang – it was such a high to be around and we felt so alive. You accept every idea Michael had, and it worked! The critics had a problem with but it was fine – they were so straight laced. They’d say, “No you can’t do that.” So we would do it anyway. 

"I rebelled against the idea of following a certain structure just because you are female"

Rebel. 

I rebelled against the idea of following a certain structure just because you are female. Getting married and settling down in order to be somebody – and being taken care of. I think it’s wrong – I think in relationships you should be equal. I think there should be total equality between men and women. I hate men who talk down to me – it makes me so angry. I’m really happy with my own life and being able to do whatever I want. I’m 62. It’s really important to me. As a dancer I have this contradiction, I look and speak softly but inside there is so much fire and courage. You can see these things for a moment in a person, someone who looks vulnerable but turns out they’re made of steel. I see it in PJ Harvey. She does what she needs to. I was taught that we could do everything that wasn’t allowed. If it was “highbrow,” the reply was “so?”. I think part of the reason Michael asked me to join him was that I was fluent in ballet but had also trained with Merce Cunningham. I had short hair and big brown eyes – a little bit ambivalent, but with a boyish energy. I was putting myself on an even foot with a male dancer. We loved pop and rock music and had a giant passion for the art. We’d do anything for it.

Be yourself. 

My dance teacher wouldn’t interfere. He’d give suggestions or corrections but he’d never try to influence what you should find beautiful. We didn’t value things in the context of good, bad and ugly. The only thing you had to be was you. Dance has become the way I live. It will be something that is with me until the day I die. You have to figure out how to remain involved [in your passion], strangely enough you learn that the economy of the time you are in is a part of it. You have to become smart. But you must not surrender to what is happening now. Just find a way to get through it. 

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