The Spontaneous Self

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image by Kevin Berne /

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.

Often, what can stop people is a feeling that the last time they used a blender isn’t very important. But if we continue to investigate, something quite interesting materializes. Let’s say they are mixing up a smoothie with apple-cranberry juice. They’re making a smoothie because they’ve just been diagnosed with a bladder infection. The bladder infection came from a new lover, and the new lover is somebody they’re having a fight with. The images will lead to something significant if we trust the opening image and see where it leads.

How did you come to improvisation as the medium for your art form?
For many years I have been writing plays and performance pieces as well as doing improvised work. I take great pleasure in improvising because it is explosive with authenticity, spontaneity, surprise, and moment-to-moment unfolding. It is completely alive.

That said, I also love the craft of writing–of honing a phrase and perfecting a narrative arc. Yet improvising has, by its very nature, a spark to it . . . a quality of unadulterated truth.

I think spontaneity is something we have a great longing for in contemporary culture because we have less and less of it in our lives and our art forms.

How do you mean?
We have very few experiences of ourselves that are fully spontaneous. Most of our entertainment has been edited, reedited, and special-effected.

Perfected, packaged, marketed, forced into bite-size bits for audiences. There’s a lot of finessing, which is great; there’s nothing wrong with it except that it’s taking over.

Improvisation is not widely accepted as a valid performance genre. It’s not even considered art by the general public–or at least something worth paying for. You’ve been improvising for 30 years on stage; have you faced this prejudice?
Yes, all the time. Improvisation is considered unreliable. Presenters want to know what they will be presenting to their audiences, and if what you are offering is one of a kind, generated only at that moment, they don’t know what you will be doing and so are frightened of the unknown.

In your teaching, you are very clear that we are making art, not engaging in therapy. Yet it is autobiographical material, and many participants and audience members walk away transformed by the experience.  Can you address this?
My philosophy is that if you follow the demands that the art makes, any art form, the experience of making and viewing the art will be transformative.

In Motion Theater, we deal with true stories from our lives. Sometimes these stories are about events that carry great import: a birth or death, an accident, a sexual violation, falling in love.

By giving both voice and movement to the experience, we are able to understand it in a new way. We are able to express it, to let it out of our mind and body and into the shared space of a witnessing audience.

When we do this well, with skill and craft and inventiveness and precision, the experience is remarkably therapeutic. To do it well, we need to learn the craft well, so I do not shy away from critique. Some teachers refrain from critique because they don’t want to squelch self-expression in their students. I think directorial feedback is crucial.

You coach your students to describe sensory experience. You steer them away from making generalizations or stating feelings.
I’m interested in making art that an audience can be uplifted by, transformed by. And to do that, the art has to be skillful. One level of the skill is telling a story well. And to tell a story well, it serves us to ground the work in detail–to say what is rather than how we feel about what is. Our feelings will be revealed by the way we describe what we see and what we do.

If a cup feels heavy in our hand as we lift it to our lips, the audience will know we are feeling sad. And the audience will feel that weightedness along with us. That is the whole point: to bring the audience into the experience of a story.

So it is necessary to call objectivity into the work.
When people get out on the floor, my experience is that if they work skillfully, everybody in the room feels it. Making art that works is a different process than unbridled cathartic expression. It really has to do with following the needs that the craft itself imposes.

The art will demand from the artist what it needs. Then again, sometimes you can break all the rules and still make great art. The trouble with autobiographical work is that if it’s not done skillfully it can slip into a confessional form.

And become indulgent . . .
What other people call self-indulgent, I perceive as lack of skill. Very few people have the stamina to develop the skill to the point where the work is refined enough that the narcissism, or the apparent narcissism, falls away and the work transforms into something that inspires empathy and self-awareness in the witness.

Certain components factor into the therapeutic value of the work: self-expression, the physicality of that self-expression, sharing what are often private moments or secrets in front of a group, and inspiring a sympathetic response. In truth, I think everybody wants to perform. I think it is a human inclination.

I imagine that, on some level, we all want to be seen and heard.
Yes, to be seen and to be heard. When the attention of the audience is trained on the performer, the performer has the gift of that collective awareness and can make a quantum leap in her or his own awareness. We’re talking about the actual chemistry, the physiology of consciousness. When the audience is focusing on the performers, the performers can work at a level they can’t work at on their own.

In your book,Big New Free Happy Unusual Life, you speak of the effect that improv has on the brain and one’s health–how neurologists are finding that associative thinking and storytelling stimulate the brain.
Creative activity stimulates the growth of brain cells. It stimulates mental clarity. If we don’t engage in self-expression, then what ails us can be internalized in ways that can create physical or psychological damage.

A few years ago, I was teaching at Esalen and in my class were three men who, unbeknownst to me, were Vietnam veterans. One of them was working on the floor and began to recover memories of being on the battlefield. I kept coaching him to report where he was and what he was doing. He said he had fallen onto the ground, that limbs were flying through the air, that he was seeing this through a shower of blood. He told me afterwards that even though he had been in therapy for 20 or 25 years, he had never been able to speak about this experience. He said performing his story was one of the most healing experiences he’d ever had.

There is relatively new research in neuropsychology that indicates that when a person experiences trauma the neural networks between the lobes of the brain are severed. The good news is that those pathways can be regrown; what is required to achieve this reconnection is the creation of a coherent narrative. When our lives become coherent through the telling of our personal narrative, our brain chemistry is affected. We experience healing on a psychological and a physiological level.

Are you healthier for your practice of Motion Theater?
Definitely. The opportunity to express the stories of my life has been enormously healing for me. Not simply because I have a way of telling the stories of my personal struggles–my mother’s death from cancer when I was 23, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor–but also because I have a way to tell the stories of my daily life.

So often our lives seem impoverished because we have no way of perceiving their inherent value. But when we can tell one another with our voices and words and movement about our daily experiences, our lives seem rich and abundant. We reclaim the enchanted nature of the mundane.

Hannah Fox is a dance theater teacher, artistic director of Big Apple Playback Theatre, and author of Zoomy Zoomy: Improv Games and Exercises for Groups. Excerpted from Contact Quarterly (2010), an annual journal of dance and improvisation,  “a vehicle for moving ideas.”

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