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Maxine Sheets-Johnstone on Dance

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone contains multitudes: dancer, scholar, speaker, thinker, traveler. 

"In my first life," she says, "I was a dancer/choreographer, professor of dance/dance scholar."

In her second (and current) life, she is a Courtesy Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. She has written over 70 articles for art, humanities, and science journals, and has nine published books, including, The Primacy of Movement, The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader, and Putting Movement Into Your Life: A Beyond Fitness Primer.

Sheets-Johnstone lectures widely across the U.S. and Europe, often in conjunction with a group-centered improvisational movement session. A 50th anniversary edition of her first book, The Phenomenology of Dance, will be reissued in 2015.

"Like her other philosophical works — and like dance at its best — The Phenomenology of Dance brims with vitality, originality, force, clarity, and conviction," says Anthony J. Steinbock, director of the Phenomenology Research Center Southern Illinois University.

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone shares her three favorite and influential books:

Feeling and Form
by Susanne K. Langer

When I was studying and working on my doctorate in dance and philosophy, I read this book, a marvelous, all-inclusive analysis of form in the arts that included chapters on music, dance, poetry, painting, and more. Though I diverged methodologically from Langer’s analytical approach, following instead the rigorous methodology of phenomenology, my writing of The Phenomenology of Dance prospered greatly from her insights into how the form of art works are inflected with feeling. Her detailed study of how art works are symbolic of human feeling was inspiring!

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce

In my earlier years as an undergraduate in French and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, I had several courses in English literature, one of which included reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. I was carried away by Joyce’s language and ultimately, in my ongoing academic pursuits, realized how influenced I’d been by the meticulousness, the complex density, and dense complexity of his writings. I realized, in short, the challenge of languaging experience, and this in conjunction with a phenomenological methodology, which, in everyday but highly descriptive terms, means first of all making the familiar strange, hence being in a sense speechless, without the rush of words that in everyday life commonly constitute our conversations, reactions, thoughts, and so on. Thus, when it came to writing about dance and movement, my literary background was of sizeable moment!

The Complete Poems and Plays
by T.S. Eliot

By the time I was immersed in dance, I had read a good number of poems by T. S. Eliot in both academic and non-academic settings. I continued to be struck by the impermanent, ever-flowing character of time in his poems, by the cadences, and by the descriptive imagery of time: all rang true to the truths of experience in the art of dance as in life. Lines of his poems such as those in Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, for example, resonated with the temporal dynamics of movement — lines such as:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future

Time and the bell have buried the day
The black cloud carries the sun away.

Interestingly enough, in my years of teaching dance and of choreographing dances, I was taken with what I came to term the dynamic line of movement, a vocalized line that captures the qualitative temporal flow of movement in conjunction with its spatial and energic qualities.


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