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!
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.