(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
Dana Ruttenberg's NABA premieres at the Suzanne Dellal Center's Inbal Theater on Friday March 27 at 2 p.m. and 9 and on Saturday March 28 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost NIS 80, available at (03) 510-5656 or ticketnet.co.il. The writer is a dance scholar and founder of danceinisrael.com