The Spontaneous Self

Free your body—and the mind will follow

| May-June 2010

  • Spontanious Self

    image by Kevin Berne /

  • Spontanious Self

Originally a performer with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco, performance artist Nina Wise set out on her own to create art that incorporates language as well as movement. Drawing on her skills as a writer, dancer, and intellectual, in 1990 she developed Motion Theater, a unique improvisational form that utilizes the raw elements of body, voice, and insight.

Wise is known for her provocative performance works, which have been produced at major venues in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Her audiences also have included think tanks, medical institutions, international conferences, and spiritual centers, her subjects ranging from golf to the environment, death and healing, Jewish identity and Buddhism. She is the author of Big New Free Happy Unusual Life, and she teaches at the Esalen Institute in California.

A few years ago, Hannah Fox, an associate professor of dance and theater at Manhattanville College, took the opportunity to talk with Nina as her student and colleague.


In Motion Theater, through spontaneous improvised movement, we access memory and create text around stories from our lives. Can you speak to this process?
When I teach Motion Theater, I begin each session with a thorough physical and vocal warm-up. The physical warm-up shifts the mental focus so that we become sensitive to the sensations and impulses of the body. After the warm-up, I invite people to move freely. There is a deep pleasure in responding to felt impulse with improvised movement.

To enter the narrative phase of the work, I invite my students to find a gesture that arises from the body and to repeat that gesture. It might enlarge, become smaller, or transform into a new gesture. I then invite them to soften the mind and to see what image arises from the movement. It might be falling rain, or curtains, or a blender, or waves. I invite them to ask themselves, “When did I last experience falling rain or a blender or a wave?” A memory surfaces—they locate themselves in relationship to this image in a time and space.