Tell Me About Your Bad Self – Ellen Van Schuylenburch

Ellen Van Schuylenburch lives in London and works on Special Projects and Artistic Documentation for the Michael Clark Dance Company, of which she is a founding member. Ellen also teaches at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

We met at the Michael Clark Company office at the Barbican, where I photographed Ellen’s must-have products, and she explained to me that she prefers to use natural formulations when possible. The brands Ellen pulls from her bag include AvedaDecléor Paris, Korres, Apivita and By Nature.

Ellen finds the Decléor Paris skincare kit (back of picture, below) perfect for travelling, and the Honoré des Prés Vamp à NY perfume (a gift from a friend) is a natural blend fragrance with top-notes of tuberose and rum. We then headed to the Barbican bar to discuss beauty in more detail …

(iBeheld): Tell me exactly what it is that you love about Korres … is it the scents, the packaging, the formulation?

(Ellen): Most of all, the formulation, because I think the ingredients are good quality, I think it’s natural. It probably is – I can’t read all the Greek! It’s very, very nice. [The shampoo] has extra gloss and cactus stuff and it leaves your hair really beautiful and really soft, and when you wear this artificial colour … your hair becomes fluffy. It dries it out. I’ve got this Apivita Propoline hair mask from Marks & Spencer – another Greek brand – so after washing I immediately put the hair mask on, so that the hair doesn’t become frizzy. But Korres … I love it also for the shower.

Ellen Van Schuylenburch's favourite beauty productsYou have great skin as well.

I think I’ve been fortunate that I stopped smoking. But I do have good skin, mainly in the sense that I still have collagen. I was at Wholefoods and they said ‘Would you like to do a skin test?’ And I say, OK, and from all these things, the factors, you know: I didn’t have any sun damage, which is good, no wrinkles for my age group – I’ll be 60 next year –

– No, really? Because you’re my favourite kind of age to be, which is ageless: I just can’t tell. And I think that’s what everyone should aim towards? It shouldn’t be about aiming to look younger than you are: just aiming to look un-knowable; not able to be categorized; not put in a box.

That’s good, and yeah, you shouldn’t try, you should just stick to your routine. I do cleanse every night, really well; you probably do as well, because we live in London: it’s so filthy. And then of course, your night cream – whatever it is, whatever you can afford. I always use serum at night and a different serum in the morning. What I still haven’t found yet and really would like to find is a really good moisturising cream that has like 50% naturals and 50% sunscreen – they are very expensive. But it is important I think. Just a little exfoliation twice a week or something, a mask when you can, and then … just don’t clog your skin up. The test only showed as negative that I have some pores here – and here –

The t-zone?

Yeah. I’m a T-zone person, yeah. But I think youthfulness also is to have a good placement of the body.

1983-07-ellen-with-ruff_of7_LE3-1I think that the things that you see when you’re young inform what influences you and what you find attractive. So you, as a dancer with the Michael Clark Company, were one of my formative influences. When you were little was there anyone that you used to look at and think ‘When I grow up…’

It must be dancers for me. Carolyn Brown, who was a really outstanding dancer with Merce Cunningham; Margot Fonteyn and Gelsey Kirkland … it’s all really dance related, my heroes.  All my examples for women were of course, the way I would like to dance. All these ballerinas, really great dancers, I would study them and I would sort of think, ‘oh, she just holds this…’ and I would try to do that. Or later on I would see dancers like them in class and I used to think, ‘oh this is the way; that is the way’. It’s a lot of posture and timing and lots of stuff you learn, and it’s nice when you’re finally sort of a part of this club, you know?

What you have to learn as a dancer is you have to do it with your body, whether you like it or not, you can’t change it. You have to do it with your face, with your eyes, with everything and you have to make the best out of it and you just get going. It’s kind of hopeless to do anything else.

I always liked women who had something to do, women who were just not models or something. I felt inspired with women who didn’t cave in. I do like really strong outspoken, maybe feminist women. That’s what I definitely was. I could not have spent my whole life making a man happy, in doing the house, doing this and doing that and sacrifice – I couldn’t!

Ellen Van Schuylenburch close-up in I Am Curious Orange posterThere’s so much stuff written about the male gaze. I think somebody needs to talk about the female gaze, because although there’s the terrible down-side of it with the Daily Mail and the Circle of Shame around someone’s cellulite, there is another female gaze which is the nod in the street, ‘you look nice’, ‘you’ve got nice shoes’ – that one never gets talked about, does it?

That’s really it, and that’s why I said yes to your interview, because most of the time I don’t. It’s actually a celebration of women isn’t it?

I sort of say, “oh, that’s a beautiful hat” or “that’s a great coat”, or some people I see in the tube and they’ve got a bag full of Hermès and I just really want to say “What did you buy?” (laughs) Cause I can’t afford it! I just wanna know! New Yorkers on the street – they say these things. Also, what’s really important to me is that you don’t express yourself through your wealth – if you have wealth- “Look at my new McQueen”, “Look at my new Balmain winter coat”. I think that’s a shame. Because clothes are there to celebrate – and sometimes I find really nice things, but I wear them because they’re really nice, not to perform some power game. And I think a lot of that is going on now.

In the ’80s people with money felt like a bit of an irrelevance and if they did have money, they kept it quiet!

They bought the drinks!

It seemed to be more about your eye and if you had designer things, that was about who you knew…

Yeah, and you certainly wouldn’t wear everything [head-to-toe] would you? That’s really sad. If I had money of course I would like to buy some Comme des Garcons but I don’t … This (Ellen plucks at her cardigan) is Comme des Garcons, which I love, it goes with my sneakers, you know?

And I love that pink lurex top, which is gorgeous.

It would be good under that (my blue Bodymap cardigan, which has strategically placed holes around the bust line) because you see it … Yes, all this – you decide not to play those particular games. You come in dressed top to toe in Issey Miyake – it basically says you can afford Issey Miyake. I think in France, it’s different, because you have maybe a really nice shirt that you’ve saved up for or you’ve found it knocked down and then you wear it with your other second-hand things, your really faded jeans or whatever you have and nice shoes, and … you know whenever you’re in Paris, people flirt with you! I love it! You just have to sit outside and you have a cup of coffee – I don’t smoke any more but I wish I smoked – and then these men will … (Ellen raises an eyebrow and laughs) … and it’s nice to be acknowledged!

It’s an appreciative society!

And it’s more about your je ne sais quoi … I think it’s not very good here in England, the idea of beauty, and that’s why the revivals of that particular ’80s like the Club To Catwalk show at the V&A, and what’s happening at the ICA, are a good strong reminder of what people have handed in. When I went to the V&A, I  looked at all these clips of  catwalks and all the girls looked pretty manly – they are like, strong – and they had good attitude and the boys were kind of, more girly. It was funny, cute, and now it’s all sort of … rolled back – and it’s very, very conservative. People are more interested in money and want to buy a flat –

And what an expensive aspiration that is these days.

Yes (rueful laughter). But everything evolves and it’s just the way things are here now … I refuse to let it get me down.

And if it gets too dull here at least they’ve built the Eurostar to get to Paris for a little bit of flirting!

Yeah … find some nice second-hand clothes, drink coffee, have some wine…

The Complete Works, Nina Beier 2009 Performance Year Zero, Tate Modern, London, October 2012 © the artist

Nina Beier, The Complete Works. 2012 Performance year zero, Tate Modern, London, Photo: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

I know that you haven’t stopped performing: I saw a great tweet from Moira Jeffrey at The Scotsman about the performance that you did at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios. I tried to get it together to go, but I found out is was happening too late…

It’s another lucky sort of co-incidence because of Michael, because the Tate Modern knows me. They were putting on works at the Tanks in Tate Modern and one of the artists was Nina Beier. I meet up with Nina and I said, “What should I do?” She said, “You should do absolutely nothing …” and I take the whole brief extremely seriously. The only thing is; I have a sense of style, so I put my second-hand Chanel skirt on –

If I’d known you were wearing Chanel, I’d have been on that sleeper train, believe me! (laughter)

Ellen Van Scuhylenburch performing Nina Beier, The Complete Works at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Glasgow.

No, no, [at Glasgow] I wore Dolce & Gabbana trousers, which I like because they are like Hedi Slimane trousers? Which of course you can never afford! One of those TK Maxx buys, which make your legs look really slim and long. I wear my shoes, so I’m not coming in, in say: jeans and sneakers; and I thought, ‘well; I’ll do what she says.’ I start with my first ballet performance: here I go … and then I go ‘what did I do next?’ in my own brain and then I went ‘I’ll do a bit of Kylián …’ and of course I remembered very little, I just remembered little fragments of this and that … ‘and then I go there … and then I join Michael Clark, and then’ … and sometimes I just stand – and that’s what she wanted, so she loved the way I did it because it had some elegance and some grace, and she asked me to do it in Glasgow. I hope she asks me to do it again – I hope in Mexico! (laughs)

Ellen Van Schuylenburch by Micha Theiner for Eye of the Beholder

I’d like to ask you about ageing – I have a view on ageing, that it’s welcome, and infinitely better then dying, which is the alternative. But I’m interested to ask about ageing from a dancer’s perspective. As a dancer growing older, it must be that there are things that your body simply can’t do any more. What’s it like when your body has been your way of earning a living, your way of expressing who you are … is it very painful?

It was, it was, really. And I also thought I should  – I had cancer you see, and some other illnesses – so I’ve been very ill; and I agree with you: everything is better than dying, I think. Even like, if you don’t have such a great time it’s still better then dying … a good cup of tea – whatever … I agree with that. I was in Holland for about maybe four, five years just getting over all my illnesses, teaching as well, and when I came back I thought well; I decide when the party’s over. So I did an old solo of mine, at the Edinburgh Festival of 2004 and the Royal Opera House 2 as well, and there was a nice tour and I did that and I  – I don’t know if I really enjoyed that, it was just like: I have to do this, but I never found the point where I’m dancing again, so I knew that journey is like  – what could I say…? A continued daily repetition to obtain the performance miles once more… But I have to make a living so; I can’t be a full-time dancer which was a bit ridiculous I think by that time, so I teach a lot and by teaching I keep  and use that sort of space as well as it keeps my body in a way that I’m happy.

Then Michael asked me in 2009 to do Swamp, which was part of the celebration 25 years Michael Clark Company production come, been and gone. Swamp is basically stuff I’d first danced in 1984. And I just couldn’t believe how difficult it was (laughs) and also, how different everything had become … for me, it was almost like, that’s how I do it and I still teach it. I look for movement in everything: what makes this move into that move into that move – and, well, it’s too late – I can’t be part of a corps de balletI probably never  have. And also, with certain technical things that were really simple for me, like a chasse forward attitude derrière … I sense … like my leg’s not as high as the other person and I tried to work on it … I tried, but in the trying I’m not working well. I shouldn’t try – I never did that anyway, but you felt that, so it wasn’t really one of my happiest memories of dancing either. But I was very, very happy and very privileged that I could be part of it.

It interests me because I think that modern society does a terribly effective job of work convincing perfectly ordinary, healthy women who look fine that ageing is terrifying and awful. And it’s ridiculous – but surely if anybody would know the impact of growing older it will be someone like a dancer or an athlete who’ll be used to their body performing to where they’ve pushed it to, but they’re rarely spoken to about it.

I don’t mourn it any more but it was extremely painful. 

Vamp a NY perfume belonging to Ellen Van SchuylenburchI still love my New York. New York had such a major impact, like sometimes if I’m distressed or very sick and I’m on the tube and I hear some New Yorkers or Americans talking I just start to relax! It’s a strange thing – because they just talk, they just hang out, and I miss it in a strange way. In New York, you just keep on going – there is no age issue. And here, there is.

I wish the other side would embrace older dancers, but they don’t. Why should they? Maybe there are situations where there are places for all ages, all sizes –

– Like a Bodymap catwalk!

(laughs) Yes, exactly! But good times have evolved, times have changed, but it’s all fine for me.

I saw my osteopath, who knows all of us for a long time and he says, “But Ellen you’ve been a dancer for so long, you are a dancer, you have to expend a certain amount of energy per day”, and that’s so true. And I walk and I walk and I walk … I love that and it’s just expending that energy. I do it in my teaching, and I love these people and I think you see what happens to a new generation.

Until I saw you introduce Hail The New Puritan at Chisenhale Dance Space, I don’t think I’d seen you close up in years. I’d seen a few pictures but I didn’t really know what you were going to look like. But the instant I saw you, you looked as I thought that you would look – which is, ‘like you’.

And that’s how I feel. I’m still me. [I was in a conversation where] there was so much talk about getting a flat with no stairs and blah blah blah, and I just thought, this is winding me up so much, so I came home, and I found this coupon – I still had long hair – in the Evening Standard for Vidal Sassoon Academy: £3.00 and I had my hair chopped off!

This is a £3.00 haircut? Oh my God, that’s the best £3.00 ever spent! You have fantastic hair – it’s so thick and gorgeous – when it grows out, is it curly?

Well now it is, I think because of the medicines I used to take. I had really very straight hair, but it was always like a mane of hair, really, really thick and I like these curls now. I try to make them more curly. (laughs)

And you’ve also got the longest bottom eyelashes of anybody I’ve ever met in my life!

Well, I just put some mascara on today, but thank you. The top is not so great! (laughs) I’ve made my own mix of three oils: almond oil, and castor oil and vitamin E oil and I put it on my eyebrows ’cause I plucked them a little bit too much [and now I’m] growing them all back. And I put it on my lashes as well.

When I was thinking about you the words imperious and fragility came up but together, because you have really strong bone structure but it’s also very delicate. And your frame is quite delicate as well, but capable of these feats of lifting and kicking. It’s such a fantastic, fascinating mix to anyone who is not a dancer.

People who don’t know me as a dancer think, oh, she is a little bit – fragile. But the strange thing is, it’s so true what you say, dancers are all very sensitive people, but we have steel inside – which is kind of interesting in very young people. That’s what I saw when we were all becoming dancers – Michael. He’s not a pushover. He’s strong. You have to be. You have to be strong to become a dancer. And it’s a strange quality – maybe with females it’s like, because I’m so wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve … it’s like a strange contradiction, which is maybe very attractive?

I still feel, probably I always feel like a mischievous teenager who will not behave. Up is up… ‘You think that is up? This is up! This is down? No, that is down!’ That is like my eternal age and now I’m sort of thinking, like you, I’m not gonna be bothered by these people saying what you have to do and how you have to behave, or what beauty is.

Also, because of the breast cancer, I thought well, that’s a real big issue and I’m not my breasts! I am a person, and if you love me it must be a total thing, it must be the way I think about things, the way I like things or the way I behave when I’m not so good – all those sort of things, but it can’t be these outer [things]- you know, the beauty, the form, is given, isn’t it? You don’t have to do much about it anyway.

Ellen Van Schuylenburch  December 2, 2013 in London. By Micha Theinerfor Eye of The BeholderI know that you have a little bit of mascara on cause we’ talked about it earlier, but other than that you look absolutely barefaced and beautiful. Do you wear much makeup?

No. I mean for a long time I haven’t worn anything. But now it’s just a little bit of concealer here and there, and then I do my eyebrows with a little bit of pencil and then I have a transparent powder also. I go over with a brush, and then I do my mascara. That’s it.

I’m a bit worried about rouge and things. I don’t want to look sort of painted. I think in the 70s, early 80s I used a lot, a lot of make-up (laughs) But I think I feel, when you’re older you have to sort of highlight certain assets, like your bone structure, your eyebrows, your lips. I sort of think my lips are disappearing, but then you sort of think, that’s how it is … maybe I should go to the dentist and have something out here and here (laughs).

And no, I’m not gonna conform. No, I’m not going to have a perm and a raincoat and a handbag. That was the worst thing ever, like I’ve been so ill and all that, and people aren’t the nicest or kindest people as well, and they say “oh, Ellen – you’re gonna be 50! The menopause! You’ll be square as a refrigerator!” (laughs) “Your whole shape, your whole body will change!” 

I thought ‘oh for fuck’s sake! That’s the last thing I can do, or deal with – this is the body I know.’ So I went to the bookshop and I bought a book called Cooking for The Menopause … and I’m just still the same – nothing has changed! They’re liars! They’re really mean! (laughs) 

I would really hate it if I don’t recognise my body any more because this is the body I’m used to, as a dancer. And I just always eat the same things and I eat well, which is important. There’s another thing women do, and it’s say: “Wait and see – you’re good for now, but…”

“Now you have to pay: you’ve had too much fun!”

Exactly, exactly! To say ‘square as a refrigerator – and I look at my refrigerator and I said ‘motherfuckers … No way.” (laughs)

I’m a bit scared of the menopause because I hated puberty.

You can have my book!

I haven’t even learned to cook for ordinary life and I’m 45!

45 is young … It starts at 50 and it’s over at 55. I didn’t even have cold sweats, nothing. You never know what’s around the corner. You know, maybe I do find a really gorgeous man who I could sort of have two flats with… [a] ’See you on Friday’ [arrangement]… Or I might very well join a dance company again. You just don’t know. But for now it’s this way and it’s a tough world; you have to make your living. Much different than the ’80s – it’s much more expensive to live, now. You must do your job; so then I think, thank God I have my jobs! And I really, I think really, like life. I love being alive. “I’M ALIVE…” Ellen laughs, and her hands and those elegant, Comme-clad arms are suddenly in effortless, graceful movement, evoking a dance in Hail The New Puritan that she performed with a tartan scarf emblazoned with the words I’M ALIVE in large white letters – and I am filled with the same sense of exuberance and joy that I felt on first seeing her on screen.

 Charles Atlas's Hail The New Puritan


Ellen Van Schuylenburch is performing Nina Beier’s The Complete Works on Monday December 9th 2013 at 2.30pm at the Rambert Building, London SE1. More details here.

Photo Attribution

Micha Theiner photographed Ellen in the hallway of the Princess Louise, Holborn, for Eye of the Beholder.

Thanks to Ellen for providing me with:

  • Ellen van Schuylenburch with Ruff 1983. Copyright © Susanna Heron and David Ward 1983/2011.
  • the picture of Ellen performing Nina Beier, The Complete Works at Glasgow Sculpture Studios.
  • Thanks also to Ellen for arranging, and to Nina Beier for permitting, the use of Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson’s  photo of Ellen performing The Complete Works at Tate Modern, London.

I sneaked the shot from Hail The New Puritan (directed and edited by Charles Atlas in 1985-1986) that closes the interview. I thought it was essential to add context, and hope no-one minds.

The picture of Ellen in a Celtic football shirt is a detail from the publicity poster for I Am Curious, Orange by Michael Clark & Company, 1988: photographed by Dean Freeman and designed by Pete Barratt. I photographed it at ICA Off-Site: A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now.

To find out more about Ellen Van Schuylenburch via the glorious world of the internet:

 click here to see a couple of videos featuring her Bad Self and here to see a few more pictures.

To buy Ellen’s beauty must-haves, click here for Decléor Parishere for Aveda, here for Korres, and here for Apivita. Click here for Vamp à NY and other Honoré des Prés fragrances.

If you would like to treat yourself or a loved one to something very beautiful between hard covers, then click here to buy the Violette Editions Michael Clark mongraph edited by Suzanne Cotter and Robert Violette.

If you don’t already have a ticket to see the Michael Clark Company perform Triple Bill at the Barbican (21st-30th November 2013),  click here to book and pray that there are some left!