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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!
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
In today's dance world, it seems to go without saying: The more varied the training, the better. But is that always the case? Rhonda Malkin, a New York City–based dance coach who performed with the Radio City Rockettes, thinks trendy contemporary techniques that emphasize improvisation and organic movement quality are detrimental to the precision and strength needed to be a Rockette, in a traditional Broadway show or on a professional dance team. Her view is controversial: "If you really want to work, making $40,000 in three months for the Rockettes or $25,000 in one day filming a commercial, you need ballet, Broadway jazz, tap, hip hop—not contemporary," she says.
On the flip side, techniques that allow dancers more freedom may help them connect more deeply with their body and artistry, while providing release for overused muscles. We broke down the argument for both sides:
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
You could call it island-hopping, but it's not exactly a vacation. After choreographing last season's Come From Away, and winning a Tony nomination, Kelly Devine zipped from frosty Newfoundland to the Caribbean beach resort that is the setting for Escape to Margaritaville.
In the fall, she was shuttling between them, before they start this month: flying to Toronto to prepare a new Canadian production of Come From Away, then jetting back to Chicago for the final stop of Margaritaville's four-city pre-Broadway tryout.
"These two shows could not be more different from each other," Devine says with a dash of understatement. Come From Away is about the small Newfoundland town where airliners grounded by the 9/11 attacks dumped thousands of unexpected visitors; Escape to Margaritaville, at the Marquis Theatre, is a comic island romance concocted from the beachcomber songbook of Jimmy Buffett.
How does someone go from being a New York City Ballet corps member to training Hollywood A-listers like Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence? By getting injured, says Kurt Froman.
When an ankle sprain left him sidelined a few years back, Froman was "sitting at home, depressed" when he sent his friend Benjamin Millepied an email asking what he was up to. It turned out that Millepied had just been hired to choreograph some scenes for a movie, but had to be in Paris during pre-production. "He needed someone to teach two actors choreography and get them in shape," says Froman. With nothing else on his plate, he said yes, and started prepping Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for Black Swan.