Dancers Trending

Bobbi Jene Smith: What It's Like To Watch Your Life On Film

Smith dancing with Batsheva in Bobbi Jene

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.

Watch: An exclusive clip from Bobbi Jene:

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!

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Photo by Jim Lafferty

Do you have a sprained ankle that won't heal? It's not that rare. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of sprains will have symptoms later. So what is a sprained ankle anyway? It's the most common injury in all of sports and dancing.


Dancing pushes your body to its limit. If you roll over on your ankle when landing from a jump, you can sprain or injure the ligaments on the outer (lateral) side that hold the joint together. This is different from a "strain," which affects your tendons and muscles. An easy way to remember this distinction is this: You sprain your ankle, but you strain your Achilles tendon. The degree of injury varies, depending on the damage to the ligaments. We determine this by a physical exam and X-rays that help us classify the ankle sprain as Grade I (mild), II (moderate), or III (severe). The most serious sprain involves a complete tear of the ligaments with marked instability that often requires surgery. Fortunately, most sprains are Grade I or II and heal in three to six weeks. The exceptions are those that continue to cause trouble. This is the "sprained ankle that won't heal."

In medical circles, residual problems from sprained ankles cause considerable angst, because they can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat-especially when telltale signs are ignored by stoic dancers. Problems with old sprains tend to fall into three categories: swelling, pain, and instability ("giving way").


Swelling

It's normal for a sprained ankle to swell, sometimes for four to six weeks, or longer. But swelling that persists for more than three months may be a sign of trouble. The lining of the capsule surrounding a joint is called the synovium, and anything inside the joint that irritates the synovium will cause it to secrete fluid. Swelling inside of a joint is often a sign that something is causing irritation. (The swelling that is seen from the outside is a combination of soft tissue swelling around the joint and fluid within the joint itself.) In the ankle there are several reasons for this condition. While these may seem alarming, treatment is possible. But first, let's take a look at the culprits.


Chronic synovitis Sometimes there is damage to the surface of the joint that does not show up on any tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, even though it continues to cause irritation and excess fluid.


A bone chip At the time of injury, a bone chip may have been knocked loose, leaving a "loose body" floating around inside to cause trouble.


An OCD lesion "OCD" in sports medicine stands for osteochondritis dissecans (not obsessive compulsive disorder). The easiest way to think of this is like a cavity in a tooth. It is something that leaves a small hole in the surface on the ankle bone (the talus) with a dead piece of bone in it. An MRI study will usually pick this up.


A bone bruise This is not black and blue. Instead, it feels like an achy pain that is difficult to explain and lasts for months. There is edema, or fluid, within the bones themselves that we can only see on an MRI study. Fortunately, it is rarely serious and gradually fades away.


What can you do? Treatment for chronic swelling, no matter what the cause, usually requires sleeping with the leg elevated on a pillow at night and putting on an elastic ankle support in the morning when you get out of bed. If the swelling is minimal and is slowly going away with no other symptoms, it is OK to dance, but go easy on the jumps and grand plies till all the swelling is gone. However, if it doesn't feel so good then don't do it! An ankle support (no need for metal hinges, etc.) usually feels good at this stage.


It also helps to avoid the saltshaker, which leads to water retention. With diligence, the swelling should go away. However, if the leg is swollen up the shin, something else may be happening, and it needs to be checked out by your doctor. Swelling that does not go away is a sign that something more is wrong. Normal joints do not swell.


Pain

There are several common causes of ankle pain that does not go away:


The sinus tarsi syndrome Lingering inflammation, scar tissue, or a partly torn ligament can occur in the hollow place in the side of the anklebone called the sinus tarsi (sinus in Latin means hollow or sunken and the tarsus is the ankle). This is the most common cause of the sprained ankle that won't heal. While it can be difficult to discern this problem on an X-ray or MRI, a physical exam by a dance medicine specialist can pinpoint the diagnosis by locating the exact area that hurts.


A tarsal coalition Residual pain in the sinus tarsi after the original sprain heals can also be due to an unrecognized tarsal coalition. The ankle has two components: the regular ankle joint that moves up and down, and the subtalar (ST) joint beneath it that moves in and out. Together, they make up the ankle joint complex. Some people are born with limited motion in their ST joint because the bones in this area are joined together where they ought to be separate—a coalition. It can usually be seen on an X-ray or MRI. This condition is present in about five percent of ankles. It usually occurs in one ankle only, rather than both. As with a sprain, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. In dancers, it is usually mild or it would have caused trouble before the sprain. Dancers with mild symptoms can often work around it.


The high ankle sprain This is marked by tenderness in the front of the ankle on the outside. Unlike routine ankle sprains where the main damaged ligaments lie right in the sinus tarsi, this one affects a ligament that is higher up, at the level of the ankle joint itself. This is the so-called "high" ankle sprain, which can be a real bugaboo because it takes two to three times longer to heal than a routine sprain. It may not show up on medical tests, so the diagnosis is usually made on the basis of the physical exam.


Secondary problems Lastly, there are several conditions, such as FHL tendonitis ("dancer's tendonitis") and the os trigonum syndrome that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Dancers often think that the residual pain is part of the healing process when it is actually a separate problem. Later the sprain may heal, but these conditions can continue to be painful and may even require surgery if left unaddressed.


Instability

"My ankle gives way" is probably the second most common leftover problem with ankle sprains after the sinus tarsi syndrome. We doctors see it all the time. Many things can cause this problem. Fortunately most respond to appropriate treatment.


Peroneal weakness There are two peroneal tendons that run parallel down the outside of the ankle; one is short and the other is long. Their major function is to keep the ankle from rolling over and prevent sprains. After an injury they can remain weak, so the ankle is poorly protected from further roll-overs. It's easy at this point to fall into the vicious cycle of "Because it's weak it rolls over and because it rolls over it's weak," which can go on for months. If this is the problem, it is easy to fix. Simply restore the normal peroneal strength with physical therapy. A few months of daily use of a theraband, under the guidance of a physical therapist, will usually strengthen the peroneals. (They gain strength faster if the exercises are done in the full "tendu" position.)

Laxity of the ankle ligaments Grade I sprains do not usually damage the ankle ligaments to any extent, but repeated Grade II or Grade Ill injuries can lead to permanent looseness of the ligaments that hold the anklebones together. This is a difficult situation, because they can be tightened only by surgery. The surgery is quite effective, but the recovery is usually three months or more. So it is nice to avoid it if you can.


Many loose ankles often give way because of a combination of looseness and weakness. These can often be brought up to full strength with physical therapy and then they don't give way anymore. The number one indication for ankle ligament surgery is the failure of rehab to correct the problem.


Pain, swelling and instability

The problems associated with a recurring sprained ankle can co-exist and produce all three symptoms. In this ease the diagnosis is particularly difficult. There is one last problem that might be going on:


Peroneal tendon damage With repeated sprains, the peroneal tendons can develop small longitudinal rents or tears. When this happens, the tendons swell up in the sheathes that surround them and cause achy pains, chronic swelling and weakness that cannot be corrected by exercise. This problem is easy to miss and hard to correct because it usually gets worse in spite of all treatment. Fortunately, this condition also responds well to surgery.

The best way to diagnose these various problems is to see a sports or dance medicine specialist for a history, physical exam, and appropriate studies. Your doctor may request X-rays followed by an MRI, CT and/or bone scan. Physical therapy is usually the first step in the recovery. Do not try to treat yourself! There is an old expression in medicine that says, "Someone who treats themselves has a fool for a physician." Merde!


William G. Hamilton, M.D. is the orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Ballet School.

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