Kellymarie Sullivan called on her love for dance to pull her through a major health crisis, writes Karen van Ulzen.
Kellymarie Sullivan does not seem to be one to shy away from difficult topics. Her facebook page identifies her as both a “cancer survivor and a ballet dancer”. Her conversation identifies her as one who has tackled both identities with equal willpower and determination.
Ever since she was a little girl in love with images of Anna Pavlova as The Dying Swan, Sullivan has been obsessed with ballet. Dance has been her life pursuit and passion. Dance has also helped her survive her cancer crisis.
Sullivan lives in Germany, and spent most of her career dancing in Europe. She took her first steps, however, with Cecchetti ballet teacher Athol Willoughby at his school in Essendon in Melbourne, then went to the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, then the National Theatre Ballet School in St Kilda, where she was trained “intensively” by Ann Jenner, Eileen Tasker and Rosemary Starke. After a time with the ballet of Opera Australia, she went to Germany at about age 19 “but I was too young”, she declares. She returned to Australia, spent some time with the (now defunct) NSW Ballet Company, returned to Europe, Switzerland this time, and auditioned for the State Theatre St Gallen.
As luck would have it, on the very same day she auditioned, a company dancer broke her foot, and the director asked Sullivan to step into the role. As a result her first performance with the company was the very next night, in the lead role of the Pigtail Girl in Graduation Ball.
She really found her niche in St Gallen, striking up a rapport with artistic director Jens-Peter Urbich, who cast her in many leading roles. She stayed for a further nine years, then, when the company hired a new director, she moved on to State Theatre Nordhausen in Thuringen in Germany to dance the title role in Giselle, followed by a year freelancing in Switzerland. She eventually settled in Germany, at the Mecklenburg State Theatre, Schwerin, where her previous boss at St Gallen had just taken up the reins. As principal dancer she enjoyed being cast in many fascinating roles created for her by some of Europe’s most theatrical classical choreographers, such as Tom Schilling, Caeytano Soto Ramierez and Dominique Efstratiou, to name a few. She excelled in dramatic roles such as Victoria in Marc Bogaert’s Dorian Grey (as the wife, Victoria), Lysistrata, Jeanne d’Arc, and Kassandra in The Orestia, for which role she won the Konrad Ekhof Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin Gold Medallion Theatre Prize Artistic Award for Young Artists in 2006. “Only two dancers have won it,” she says proudly. “I was the first, and my colleague Davina Kramer was the second. Since then, no one else from dance has won this prize.”
But after a happy and fulfilling 15 years with that company, she was swimming in the sea when she noticed a lump in her left breast. It was a shock, though she admits that she had been noticing other symptoms - “My hair kept falling out and my toenails starting breaking and falling off. I went to put on my pointe shoes and the nail just came off, and I thought there was something wrong.” After seeing a doctor, she received the devastating confirmation: she had breast cancer.
“The first question I asked the doctor was, when can I dance?,” she says. “He said I would never dance again.”
That was not the sort of answer she was prepared to accept. As most Australian dancers know, it can take a lot of courage and resilience to make a career as a dancer, especially when journeying overseas in foreign lands. Faced with entirely new, frightening territory, Sullivan brought all the determination and persistence she had developed as a dancer to bear on her recovery.
She underwent an emergency operation, 18 bouts of chemotherapy and 24 bouts of radiotherapy as well as associated hormone and antibody therapy. The treatment started in September 2016 and finished in January 2018, with the hormone therapy due to stop in 2022. To make things worse, she suffered a thrombosis in her arm in response to the chemotherapy and had to inject herself with a blood thinning drug twice a day. “That was really gruelling,” she admits. All the while, she focused on dance to get her through. “It gave me the discipline and the drive. I would just put on music and dance. It didn't matter how I looked. Every hair on my body was gone, my eyelashes, my long black hair.” She watched dance films, she listened to music, she choreographed dances in her head while having the chemo. She turned to her constant idol, Anna Pavlova, and found solace in her images of ethereal beauty and grace.
Once the treatment was finished, Sullivan began her return to dancing with the help of Marie Walton Mahon's Progressive Ballet Technique program. “I had no energy after the radiotherapy, so I started doing the whole Progressive Training daily, and found it really helpful.”
At the same time, she began to teach ballet for free at a local acrobatic club, and found she was good at it. Her pupils began to show improvement under her guidance. Perhaps here was another outlet for her passion.
Complicating her return to dance, however, was a German regulation that, according to Sullivan, dancers can't be employed by a company for longer than 15 years. The timing for Sullivan was terrible – despite her illness, the company went ahead and fired her while she was in the middle of her rehabilitation. As if she didn’t already have enough of a fight on her hands, Sullivan also had to fight her employer to let her return to work. She won her case, however, “and in December I was allowed to go and train with the ballet company”. She was by then 43 but, in a remarkable come-back, performed with the company full-time for another year, “dancing full out, 100 percent,” she says.
“There were a lot of eyes on me - will she manage? - and I did. I danced The Creation, David Bowie in Andy Superstar. I believe you can do anything with your mind. I didn’t want to be like some dancers I know,” she adds, “who stop from injury or because they were fired. They become very bitter.”
Having finished her performance career on her own terms, and now in remission, Sullivan returned to her newfound interest – as “social assistant in child development and dance pedagogue”, and has a position in Hamburg. She plunged into her new career with characteristic determination and enthusiasm. “I went straight into child development psychology, from one day to the next – I had no time to think. That was my transition. It's classified as a government job, so it’s secure. I'm happy, I'm working in a team, we care about the children.” She has found great joy and reward particularly with children with a disability, especially autistic children.”
But she hasn't quite finished with performing yet, and once again the her idol, Anna Pavlova, has played a hand. “A dream and motivation for me was a dream to dance The Swan”, Sullivan says. She is collaborating with an old friend who is studying the famous solo for his studies at the Palucca School in Dresden, and Sullivan might just dance the part as part of his presentation. “It's about death!” she says boldly. “The whole thing is about death!” Kellymarie Sullivan, of all people, can surely be said to know what that means.