Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In the opening scene of Elvira Lind’s documentary Bobbi Jene (2017), American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith is nude on all fours looking like a Michelangelo sculpture come to life. As she twists and contorts her muscular frame, her long raven hair sweeps back and forth across her body. This powerful and jolting imagery from Smith’s solo work “A Study on Effort,” not only reveals her natural beauty as a woman, it hints at the powerful artistry that made her a star dancer for world-renowned Israeli dance company Batsheva. For the remainder of the 95-minute documentary, the 35-year-old director and girlfriend of Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac, sought to reveal the person beneath the skin during a life-altering transition in Smith’s young adult life.
The documentary takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to chronicling events in Smith’s life just as she has decided to leave contemporary dance company Batsheva after a decade (2005-2014) and move back to the United States to pursue a solo career as a dancer/choreographer.
A Centerville, Iowa-native and alumnus of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the North Carolina School of the Arts, Smith, barely out of her teens, left New York’s prestigious Juilliard School early to join Batsheva. Other than a few sentences spouted by an Israeli TV host during an interview with Smith, the film offers little biographical information on Smith, choosing instead to focus on the here and now of her life. That approach early on gives the documentary the feel of watching an episode of reality TV series MTV’s The Real World or Ballet West’s soap-operatic Breaking Pointe. Scenes of Smith with Batsheva company founder and artistic director Ohad Naharin where it is revealed the two were former lovers foster that perception. In one such scene at a restaurant where the two are discussing Smith’s leaving the company, an overtly flirtatious Naharin seemed to try to use their former romantic relationship as a way to convince her to stay. Also playing into that reality TV feel was 30-year-old Smith’s current romantic relationship with fellow Batsheva dancer, Israeli Or Schraiber who is ten years her junior. Much of the documentary is devoted to the emotional rollercoaster the pair are on trying to navigate Smith’s leaving and the effect that will have on their relationship and careers.
Using quick cuts to piece together scenes of everyday life including Smith and Schraiber in intimate situations, the documentary is measured in revealing substantive details and motivations in Smith and Schraiber’s lives. It is after Smith returns to the United States and begins teaching at Stanford University and working on “A Study on Effort,” that we begin to see what earned the film Best Documentary Feature, Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature and Best Editing in a Documentary Feature awards at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
With Smith’s realization that her life having been frontloaded with many dancers’ dream job was both a blessing and a curse we begin to get a real sense of Smith and her feeling of being unprepared for life after Batsheva.
“I never thought of the future ever,” says Smith.
While Smith’s personal life in the film may at times appear rudderless and prone to emotional turmoil, the film does a wonderful job in driving home how she harnesses that turmoil in her choreography and dancing. In one such scene, Smith in a dinner party conversation with actress Laura Dern reveals how what she calls the “mindfuck” of her learning and practicing Naharin’s Gaga movement technique helped conquer her eating disorder. But perhaps the most captivating scenes relating to this and in the film are of Smith working on “A Study on Effort.” We see her unyielding commitment in developing her choreography for the contemporary dance work by relentlessly pushing with all her might against a handball court wall, jumping and reaching skyward at an increasing pace until she becomes exhausted, and in the film’s most provocative scene, rubbing her genitalia on a 50 pound bag of sand until she orgasms.
“Sometimes you need to find pleasure with what weighs you down,” says Smith.
Smith goes on to perform the solo at Stanford and at The Israel Museum to rave reviews including that of Naharin who she says tells her, if he had seen the solo when he was younger it would have changed his life. We get the sense in the film that it is Smith’s life that is perhaps most effected by the solo; artistically taking one step closer to coming out from under Naharin’s long shadow.
“I want to get to that place where I have no strength to hide anything,” says Smith.
The film concludes unremarkably with a hopeful scene of Smith teaching a Gaga class to a room full of multi-generational dance students. As for a resolution to Schraiber and Smith’s romantic relationship that dominates the film? The film only hints at it with Schraiber saying of their long distance relationship that he is not in the same place as Smith and Smith saying they dream too much and are “not good with the reality stuff.”
In the end, what works for Bobbi Jene as a film, not so much as a dance documentary (there is very little dance in it), is the empathy created for the bright-eyed Smith who you cannot help but feel for and root for as she walks a tightrope between cultures, generational norms and what was and what will be. Unfiltered, undressed and unabashed, Smith is truly magnetic in the film that despite its soap-operatic beginning, if you stick with, has the power to stick with you.
Directed by Elvira Lind
Featuring – Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber, Ohad Naharin
Produced by Sonntag Pictures – Julie Leerskov & Sara Stockmann
Film Editor – Adam Nielsen
Cinematographer – Elvira Lind
Music composed & Performed by Uno Helmersson
Sound designer – Martin Sandström & Jacques Pedersen
Co-producer – Mathilde Dedye
Run Time: 95 minutes; Not Rated
Country: Denmark | Sweden | Israel | USA
Release Date: 6 October 2017 (Sweden)
10/13/2017 – Irvine, CA, Edwards Westpark 8
10/13/2017 – San Diego, CA, Media Arts Center
10/13/2017 – Santa Fe, NM, Violet Crown Cinema
10/14/2017 – Houston, TX, 14 Pews
11/17/2017 – Seattle, WA, Grand Illusion Cinema
12/9/2017 – San Francisco, CA, The Roxie
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.