When she was a teenager, Japanese art historian Melissa McCormick’s life revolved around the rigorous study of a different kind of art: modern dance.
McCormick attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in northern Michigan, and completed her senior year of high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she stayed for a semester of college. There, she majored in modern dance, primarily practicing the Martha Graham technique. In addition to intense physical training, she took classes on dance theory and composition, musicology, and improvisation.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” explains the newly tenured professor of Japanese art and culture in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “but I really think all of those things were building blocks for what I do now. How do you break down a dance into different parts? How do you describe it? That’s one of the most difficult things about art history: the articulation and analysis of complex visual representations.”
Thanks to her dance education, McCormick had many opportunities to interact with visual art and music. She often visited museums in London while studying abroad, and even met composer John Cage when he attended one of her performances. She was particularly inspired by the interdisciplinary approach of her instructors.
“My teachers and choreographers would use literature and elements outside of dance to enrich their art,” she says. “They made dance less narrow than people might think it is.”
However, it was this exposure to her teachers’ wider interests that eventually led to her decision to stop dancing.
“Leaving dance was an extraordinarily difficult decision,” she admits. “Like many aspiring dancers, I realized that there were many other equally worthy and viable pursuits … and that while dance is an incredibly rewarding profession — personally and emotionally — in other ways it’s such a difficult lifestyle, and usually, except in extraordinary cases, such a short career.”
She first became curious about Japanese cultural history through her exposure to Japanese dance, and pursued this curiosity by enrolling on a whim in a Japanese language course.
“I fell in love with the language. I felt an affinity for it: the cadences, the richness of expression, the fact that it was so codified and situational,” she says.
After transferring to the University of Michigan, she knew immediately that she wanted to combine her previous interests in art and aesthetics with her newfound fascination with Japan. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Japanese art and archaeology from Princeton University in 2000, and came to Harvard in 2005 as an associate professor after five years as the Atsumi Assistant Professor of Japanese Art History at Columbia University.
McCormick’s current research revolves around an exploration of a highly refined form of monochromatic illustration, developed among communities of women in 15th and 16th century Japan.
“The scrolls that employ this mode happen to represent a treasure trove of interesting plot lines that subvert standard narratives to emphasize female characters and to focus on issues specifically of concern to women,” she says. She also continues to work on “The Tale of Genji,” written by a woman around the year 1000 and widely considered the world’s first psychological novel.
Even in these specific areas of study, McCormick finds parallels between Japanese art and modern dance.
“Many of the principles behind early modern dance in America and elsewhere are inflected in some way by an encounter with East Asian aesthetic ideas,” she says. “In ink painting, there are no extraneous elements … things are paired down and simple, yet powerful, and can resonate on many different levels with the viewer. These are things that you also find in modern dance compositions.”
As a visual trace of the body, calligraphy too strikes a chord with the former dancer. Looking at just a single brushstroke, she explains, “You get a sense of the corporeality of the calligrapher — their breath and movement — in the way you can when you’re looking at a dancer who’s wholly immersed in their performance.”