Bobbi Jene

A film directed by Elvira Lind
Produced by Julie Leerskov & Sara Stockmann

— by Jerry Hochman

In the creative process that eventually becomes a dance performance, when does the “person” end, and the “art” begin?

The question occurred to me, as it has on many previous occasions, as I watched Bobbi Jene, a documentary directed by Elvira Lind that begins its formal public engagement today at New York’s Quad Cinema, following its premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won awards for Best Documentary Feature, Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature, and Best Editing in a Documentary Feature.

Although I have some concerns, in the overall scheme of things they’re not critical. Bobbi Jene is a superb film documentary.

I use the term “film documentary” for a reason: it bills itself as a documentary, and it is. But, perhaps mirroring the term “dance theater,” Bobbi Jene is a hybrid that succeeds as an entertaining movie as much as a visual chronical of an artistic and personal journey.

The journey is that taken by the film’s subject, Bobbi Jene Smith, a contemporary dancer hailing from Iowa who left the Juilliard School at 21 to join Israel’s celebrated Batsheva Dance Company after taking a class from its Artistic Director, Ohad Naharin. She remained with Batsheva from 2005 to 2014, was highly regarded within the company, and achieved prominence in Israel (and beyond, by knowledgeable contemporary dance enthusiasts). But, as she was about to turn 30, Smith decided to leave the life she’d lived for 10 years to return to her home country and to explore other interests, including choreographing and teaching in addition to performing. This is the point in time at which the documentary begins, and it continues through this challenging and traumatic period in Smith’s life.

In evaluating Bobbi Jene’s merits, there are multiple interdependent considerations: the quality of the film itself in terms of what it chooses to show and how it tells its story, what it reveals about Smith as a person and as a dancer, and how any of this impacts more universal issues relating to performance art in general and dancers and dance in particular.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that Bobbi Jene is not a film, documentary or otherwise, “about” dance and dance creation. Snippets of varying length of dances in rehearsal/demonstration or performance, and the creative process involved, are woven throughout, but this is incidental (although essential) to documenting this period in Smith’s life. Indeed, no one dance is shown in complete form, so there’s no included “dance” to review. Further, although many dancers travel the same personal and professional emotional highways, Smith’s personality is hers alone, and the experiences and the paths she takes are not necessarily the same as those taken by others, and the film makes no claim, implicit or otherwise, that they are. That being said, much of what happens in Bobbi Jene can be seen, at times, to reflect universal truths.

The film skillfully takes the viewer with Smith on her journey without making value judgments on the choices she makes or has previously made. And tempting as it may be at times, the viewer should avoid being judgmental as well. Bobbi Jene is who she is and her story is what it is – subject to the editing process and any reenactments that may have taken place (see below). This is not your “fly on the wall” documentary. The camera (Lind is the cinematographer), though not an intrusive participant, is Smith’s ever-present companion throughout: in her conversations with colleagues, friends, advisors, and family; in creation, rehearsal, and performance, including her final Batsheva performance; in theaters, studios, classrooms, restaurants, airports, a living room, a rooftop, her bedroom; and through personal and professional joy and anguish, pleasure and pain. In the process, do we get to know Bobbi Jene Smith? Of course. Intimately – even though there’s always the possibility that we’re only seeing what Smith and Lind want us to see.

Lind and the film’s editor, Adam Nielsen, do a commendable, if not miraculous, job splicing years of documentation together into a coherent whole. I particularly liked how the film introduces essential backstory and identifies people within the context of the conversations that take place “in real time” during the period her film chronicles: the film never, overtly, plays catch-up, and there are no awkward flash-backs (though there’s a very small amount of footage of Naharin teaching that Juilliard class, and of Smith in performance soon after she joined Batsheva, which are skillfully utilized to illuminate conversations). Instead, we learn how she got to be where she is, about her romantic as well as professional relationship with Naharin, and about her current relationship with another Batsheva dancer, all through conversations with other people in the context of her decision to leave Batsheva and alter the direction of her life.

And the film’s “story,” the critical period of time in Smith’s life and its inherent pressures and challenges, is handled deftly. Even though there are many jarring segues that take the viewer from Point A to Point B faster than characters traveled though Westeros in Game of Thrones Season 7, in this documentary context that’s understandable and essential to provide a sufficient sense of detail as well as an effective distillation, and, concurrently, to make the film move expeditiously.

More problematic are the choices Lind and Nielsen (and presumably Smith herself) made of scenes to include (and to exclude). Aside from essential narrative scenes that move time and action forward, I felt that there was too much time spent displaying her relationship with her young lover, Or Schraiber. Did we need to see him rescue a chair that they saw floating in the sea? Did we need to see as many intimate moments (no, not explicit) as we do? I suppose that Lind felt it necessary to provide a complete picture of their relationship, both to explain what was happening in Smith’s mind and as a lead-in to what happens with the relationship later in the film.

But scenes like these that I think could have been jettisoned are balanced by some fabulously mundane scenes that provide insights into things dancers/artists need to do to make their performances more real: scavenging for rocks at a construction site to help her demonstrate the “effort” she wants to show in her dance; making decisions as to how far to expose herself physically in a dance in which she intends to expose herself emotionally; purchasing sandbags that will be used to illustrate the connection between pain and pleasure; and in discussions with her mother, when she briefly returns to her home town, about what she’s doing, what people might think, and, more importantly, what she and her mother think. And there are priceless scenes that illuminate Smith as she is now, apart from her relationship with Or, as when she learns how to lift her sister’s baby and cradle the baby in her arms.  Although others might consider them superfluous, such scenes make the film as good as it is.

So what does the film tell us about Smith the person? Everything … within the limits of the medium. Clearly Lind wants us to believe that we’re seeing Smith as she is. Literally. Lind begins the film with a visual “prologue” that makes it clear that nothing about Smith, including her body, is to be hidden from view (a different “statement” from showing nudity in the context of a performance). It’s apparent to me that Lind’s (and Smith’s) purpose here isn’t to be prurient – although it’s inevitable that some may think that. It’s to be complete and uncompromising. Be that as it may, what we ultimately see in Bobbi Jene’s portrait/exposure of Smith is a person, artist and dancer not unlike other persons, artists, and dancers, but one with complexities, challenges, motivations and determinations unique to her – which is more than sufficient for the film’s audience to feel that it knows her, and to make the film interesting to watch.

And what does the film tell us about the creative process? Although it’s somewhat of a stealth issue, to me it’s the most important aspect of the film. And it’s more than just a sense of “this is what I want to say and this is how I’ve decided to say it.” Aside from bits and pieces of process, and without pounding the issue into the audience’s head, Bobbi Jene shows that Smith creates and performs as she does because that’s who she is, and who she is is a component of events and circumstances, and of factual and formational predicates in her life, that the film reveals and reflects – which is not as simplistic, or as easy to show, as it sounds.

One quality that makes the film as good as it is is the dialogue. While most of it consists of “reality” conversations, occasional highly perceptive statements flow out of speakers’ mouths like honey. For example, lines like the following are peppered throughout the film, the way expressions of profundity frequently emerge from what otherwise seems to be unexceptional choreography: Bobbi Jene: “You know, mom, sometimes you need to find pleasure in what weighs you down”; and, later,  Mother: “Exposing oneself can be very mentally difficult,” to which Bobbi Jene responds: “What’s even more difficult is withholding oneself.” [My words may not be exact quotes.]

But this also raises one of my concerns with the film: the extent to which any of the “conversations” may be part of a libretto, either as an actual, or more intellectually concise, reconstruction of events. Of course, pearls of wisdom may be expressed spontaneously in conversation, and the characters here may simply have the innate ability to express their thoughts well. But to have so many such observations float off speakers’ tongues makes the words seem scripted.

And if you allow yourself to think along those lines, many of the scenes could have, and logically must have, been reconstructions – like Smith’s conversations with Naharin about her decision to leave Batsheva. If this was the first time he was hearing this, how could it have been filmed? Did Smith and Lind know in advance that Smith would make this decision and would be disclosing it to Naharin at that particular point in time? Did Naharin (who seemed remarkably composed during the conversation) know it was going to happen, or that it had already happened? And why make a film about Smith in the first place? She’s not the only dancer to have to endure such crises. It sure looks like certain real-time events may have been conceived in advance in order to have the equipment (and personnel) ready to be in the right places at the right times. And certainly the participants in the film, except perhaps for audiences in theaters during performance excerpts, had to have known that they were being filmed. At bottom, then, is Bobbi Jene just a vanity film?

But such intrusive thoughts are not relevant. Like Smith herself, Bobbi Jene has to be taken as it is, regardless of how it happened to get to be the way it is: a film that illuminates a particularly challenging time in the life of one dancer.

And ultimately, Bobbi Jene succeeds not only in being an excellent film on its own merits, but also in demonstrating convincingly that a period in a dancer’s (or anyone’s) life and in a dancer’s creation and/or performance of a work of dance art, whatever the events, facts, and foibles and personal decisions that comprise it may be, is more than an isolated period in one’s life, as significant as that period may be – it’s a rehearsal for whatever comes next. [The film doesn’t end so much as it stops chronicling at a particular point in time: recognizing as it must that Smith’s life, including more and different challenges, continues unseen and unknowable.]

And it answers the question I mentioned at the outset the only way it can be answered: when does the “person” end, and the “art” begin? Never. Like Bobbi Jene Smith and her art, they’re inseparable.