Dana Ruttenberg’s “NABA” Features Eye-Opening Moves in the Ear

Events, Israeli Choreographers, Performances

Video: Duet from Dana Ruttenberg’s NABA

Curious about the back story of this duet?  On April 24th, you can head on over to the Inbal Dance Theater at Suzanne Dellal and click through NABA‘s audio guide to get some context and gain control over your viewing experience.

Before the dance premiered last month, I had a lively conversation with NABA‘s creator, Dana Ruttenberg, for a Jerusalem Post preview.  The resulting article – republished below – was initially printed in the JPost as “Choose your own dance adventure” on March 27, 2009.

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It was in a Madrid museum that inspiration struck choreographer Dana Ruttenberg.  With the audio guides temporarily unavailable, visitors quickly angered, shouting that they would not be able to enjoy or understand the collection without this aid that describes the artwork.

Startled by the mob’s outrage, Ruttenberg realized, “People need a guiding hand, even if it’s a physical thing. They need a way to connect to art.”  She began to muse about her own art form, wondering, “What if we had audio guides in dance?”

The Ramat Gan native’s latest work may be the first dance piece in the world to harness this technology.  Its English title NABA, an abbreviation of the Hebrew title Na Ba’ozen (Moves in the Ear), also happens to be the name of the earpiece used by broadcasters and musicians.

Like visitors to a museum, NABA‘s audience members are outfitted with an audio guide and headphones and allowed to choose from an assortment of tracks throughout the performance.  Some options feature music while others are spoken text.  Signs onstage cue viewers when to make their selections.

For Ruttenberg, the audio guides are not a novelty or gimmick but instead a tool to tackle preconceived ideas about dance and viewership.  She recounts, “People would tell me, ‘You know, I just don’t connect to dance.’ I would invite them to a show, and they would say, ‘I feel like I don’t know enough to understand dance, I’m too ignorant to understand dance. I need to be more intellectual, I need to be more educated.'”  Still others told the choreographer that, while they enjoyed her work, they felt it too formal an environment too even laugh at a performance.

“This notion of dance as an elite art form, that you’re not supposed to breathe around, that it’s only for some people who understand it – for a long time I’ve been waiting to find a way to break that notion,” Ruttenberg reflects.

By providing commentary, the audio guides help to alleviate such typical feelings experienced by those mystified by dance.  It also offers some background information that may spark a better understanding or deeper emotional connection to the work.

NABA‘s approachable and fitting theme of communication serves to further counter the notion that dance is elite and difficult to comprehend.  The cast’s four dancers explore non-verbal communication, which is, as Ruttenberg emphasizes, the very basis of the art form itself.

The use of audio guides further facilitates a greater connection to dance by challenging the usual divide between active performers and receptive audience members.  Rather than sitting passively in the theater, viewers engage with the menu of audio options and consequently shape their perceptions of the action onstage.

Dancer Johanna Roggan explains, “You choose a different track and you have a different experience.” Elaborating upon the nuances of the concept, Roggan notes that the audience members who opt to hear her biography, instead, for example, of fellow performer Idan Porges (who appears in a duet with Roggan), will form a different picture of the pair’s relationship.

With a number of similar crossroads featuring multiple alternatives, viewers navigate NABA like readers of a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  Relinquishing so much control over the dance is a bit scary, Ruttenberg admits.  But, she believes, the trade-off that gives a strong and empowering experience to the audience members is worth it.  A highly unique performance in its own right, NABA may open viewers’ eyes to the choices they make as spectators and thus transform how they watch dance in the future.

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Please note that the text included in the audio guides is primarily in Hebrew.  With my developing Hebrew vocabulary, I was able to follow along quite well.  Those with less Hebrew will still be able to enjoy choosing different musical selections, and all viewers can interpret the communicative choreography regardless of their language skills.

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  • I felt very refreshed reading about NABA when you posted another article a while ago. Here in the states the dance world seems so insular in comparison to the more culturally inclusive contemporary dance scene in Israel. At least that is what I experienced as a dance-goer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem a few years ago and sounds as thought it has only proceeded in this direction. If I understand the article correctly, Ruttenberg has cleverly tapped into a way of allowing audience members to develop a personal relationship with the dance that excludes the usual fear of having to ‘understand’ some intrinsic message.

    • Glad you feel refreshed! Yes, you understood this correctly. While I have seen attempts in the U.S. to foster this relationship between audience members and a dance, these have always been external to the dance itself (via pre-show talks and videos, previews, program notes and visual displays at the performance venue, online resources, etc.). In those cases, artists need to rely on viewers to take the initiative to actively look at supplementary material. But with NABA, the mechanism for forming this connection is built into the dance itself – and so, in a sense, the dance reaches out to every audience member.

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