Bobbi Jene Smith: What It's Like To Watch Your Life On Film
Elvira Lind's documentary Bobbi Jene took the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival by surprise last spring, sweeping the awards for Best Documentary, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. For those of us who have watched Batsheva and Bobbi Jene Smith's career, the film's success is not unexpected. It is a validation of what we already know: Bobbi Jene is absolutely fascinating.
She is the dance equivalent of a method actor, like a Daniel Day Lewis who lives inside his characters for months or years. Seeing her choreographic process first-hand reveals there is no trying to portray emotion through dance, what we see is true emotion as a result of dance.
Maybe the real surprises stem from the film's uncensored portrayal of the dancer's life beyond the studio. The documentary follows Smith's decision to leave Batsheva and Tel Aviv after 10 years, to seek out her own choreographic voice, as well as return "home" (identified only as somewhere in the United States.) We see her passionate and later rocky long-distance relationship with fellow Batsheva dancer Or Schrieber, who is 10 years younger, in an up close and personal way. We see her family's home in Iowa, and the stark contrast between her religious rural roots and her big city artist's life. As a fly on the wall, we experience viscerally how all these pieces fit together to inspire her work.
The film's New York City release is September 22, with other cities following shortly. We spoke with Smith about the nitty gritty parts of filming and of life. WARNING: Some spoilers lie ahead!
What have you learned from this documentary experience?
It's been a lesson on letting go. (Whew!) Elvira looked at my life through her lens, telling the story she wanted.
If you went back in time, would you say yes to the filming process again?
Yes! It's been powerful to hear responses, especially from women saying the film gave them inspiration and power. That's huge for me.
What is it like watching your life unfold on a big screen?
I've seen it maybe four times. I usually sneak out during screenings because it is difficult. I was shocked the first time I watched it all. There were times I didn't understand choices made; I was critical sometimes of the dance footage. But Elvira puts so much care and love into every shot. This is her craft, and I owe it to her to trust her decisions.
It was refreshing how unguarded you were. What was your initial thought behind what to include/not include?
I told Elvira if we are doing this, we go all in. She has a magic ability—when she's behind the camera she disappears. So most of the stuff that made it into the film, I actually don't remember her being there! She allows you to just live. The film is also a love story and there's a whole dance in that, too.
Near the beginning you reveal that you and Ohad were once lovers. Were you worried about opening up personal history?
I was concerned with sharing—I didn't want the film to become about that. But I trusted Elvira to handle it delicately. Ohad was also able to see the film before it was released. We wanted to make sure he was on board with everything that was shown, since much was filmed at Batsheva.
Still from Bobbi Jene
Where did the inspiration for your work A Study on Effort come from?
The piece came from a curiosity of digging into simple tasks. I began questioning virtuosity and effort. Effort isn't always connected to burden, sometimes effort is just a sensation that becomes joyous.
What was your mom's reaction when you told her you were performing the solo nude and pleasuring yourself at the end?
"Oh Bobbi, I just don't get this!" But my goal is for people to see the physicality of pleasure. Instead of just saying 'Oh, it's sexual,' I wanted to show pleasure is similar or even the same as other physical effort in our lives.
Seeing your mom moved to tears while watching you perform your duet Harrowing was one of the film's most touching moments. What did it mean to you?
I felt so lucky to have her there, to share that with her. The fact that she empathized with me really moved me. My work comes from my family too; it shows that you can go far away for so long yet stay connected.
Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schrieber in Bobbi Jene
How did your family shape you as an artist?
The sense of endless work was always very clear from my parents. That there is no big goal or medal to get to, the virtuosity is in the commitment to your work. This idea was engrained in me. I remember my dad telling my brother and I, "Life's not boring, you are! Open your eyes and see, look and ask questions!" Religion is obviously a big thing in my family, but dance has become my prayer, a way for me to communicate with the world.
What has happened in your life since we last saw you in the film?
Or and I are both in New York now and still together, and he's going to acting school! I returned to Batsheva for some performances of Last Work, and for the creative process of Venezuela. I'm continuing work on A Study on Effort, teaching at Juilliard, University of the Arts, San Francisco Conservatory and open classes at Gibney Dance Center and Mark Morris.
How did you and Elvira decide to end filming?
She wanted to keep going, because she didn't think we had a clear ending yet. I told her if you are waiting for that big moment, it's probably not going to come!
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.