Bobbi Jene Smith has amassed serious frequent flyer miles on her journey through the dance world.
The Iowa-born, Juilliard-trained dancer-choreographer decamped to Tel Aviv at age 21 to join the renowned Batsheva Dance Company. After 10 years as a Batsheva mainstay, and still at the peak of her performing abilities, she made the wrenching decision to return to the U.S. to find her own voice as a dance-maker. On Nov. 1, Smith unveils With Care, her second evening-length work at San Francisco’s ODC Theatre. (Her first, called A Study in Effort, made its West Coast debut there last fall.)
Smith is hardly the first dancer to make the career leap to choreographer. But rarely is this transition documented in the sort of frank and intimate detail traced by filmmaker Elvira Lind in her film Bobbi Jene, released in 2017. Lind captured the dancer’s emotional struggle of not only leaving the company that had become her home, but negotiating a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, Or Meir Schraiber—another Batsheva dancer, 10 years her junior. Metaphors for Smith’s struggle played out in clips of her extraordinarily powerful dancing; in the film, she is seen both in the work of Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s legendary founder, and as she hammers out her own choreography for what would become A Study in Effort. A decade of working in Gaga, Naharin’s signature dance technique, is evident in the extremes of jaggedness and fluidity that characterize Smith’s movement.
The quietly explosive documentary thrust Smith into the limelight. Much ink has been spilt over the nudity in her work, and a scene in which she reveals the effort required to achieve orgasm while grappling with a large sandbag.
Yet the single most revealing scene in the documentary revolves around effort of a different nature. On a handball court, Smith battles a concrete wall, pushing and straining to move it, the effort causing her slender frame to convulse. Later in the film those movements reappear in a dance, as Smith pushes furiously against an invisible barrier. Without a physical wall, the movement transforms from something mildly comical into something profound and heroic.
I caught up with Smith in New York City, her new home base, earlier this month. I asked her about the reactions to Lind’s documentary.
“When you put something vulnerable and exposing out in the world, either people will feel like they want to take care, to hold you and protect you,” she replied, cupping her hands together expressively, “or they will be indifferent.”
I wondered about the boundaries she’s crossed onstage—the nudity, and sex—especially now, at a time when charges of misogyny and harassment are rocking the dance world. One lawsuit currently pending against New York City Ballet alleges that company management has fostered a “fraternity-like atmosphere” in which male dancers and a donor shared naked photographs of female dancers without their knowledge or consent. These are female dancers who have lost control over how their bodies, the finely-honed instruments of their profession, are seen. And then there’s Smith, very much in control of how her body is seen. Have these circumstances colored the way she thinks about her work?
“If anything,” she said, “I think it adds more fuel to the fire to do what I do, it makes me want to share it even more… For instance, with the sandbag, and the pleasure—it’s a comment on this society wanting to see women sexy, wanting to see pleasure. But what does that actually look like? Pleasure doesn’t look sexy, it might not look pretty. It might actually look more like something else. Wanting to say something about that comes from wanting to show strength, wanting to show that the female body—the human body—can be strong and vulnerable, delicate and powerful at the same time. And something that might seem ugly or vulgar can be the most beautiful.”
Is her work then in the nature of a protest, I asked? “No, it’s not a protest. It’s a poem. It’s a prayer.”
With Care, running Nov. 1–3 at ODC, features a quartet of Smith, Schraiber (now her husband), co-creator and violinist Keir GoGwilt, and violinist Miranda Cuckson. The idea sprung from the final ‘effort’ in A Study on Effort, the ‘effort of taking care.’
In the course of their investigations, two characters whom they call the wounded spirit and the caretaker “kind of just appeared.” Smith and GoGwilt harvested stories from Oliver Sacks’ writings, including his accounts of sleeping sickness.
They were also struck by the tale of a woman “who would lose her identity because she would care too much. She would give and give and give and then she would have these bouts, these fugue states in which she would completely lose her sense of herself.”
In order to show care, Smith thought, “we have to also show the lack of care. The destruction and the mania and the loss and vacancy and all those things that call for care.”
“Then it kind of went into—how do we fix what is already broken? How do we fix something that we know will be broken again?”
With two dancers and two musicians sharing the stage, the creative process was described by Smith as “trying to find where we meet, where the dance and the music are one. [The musicians] are not just accompaniment, they are dancers, too.” (All four artists belong to the American Modern Opera Company, a collective of artists dismantling the traditional divide between music and theater.)
Were there times, I wondered, when the violinists would say ‘That feels good,’ but Smith would think ‘No, it’s not?’
“Yeah. And there were times when I would do something and Keir would say 'that doesn’t feel right.' But physically, it does, to me. Dancers work so instinctually. And musicians work from a different place. How do those different entry points make something bigger, and not just collide?”
'With Care' runs Nov. 1–3 at San Francisco's ODC Theatre. Details here.