It’s impossible to watch dancer Bobbi Jene Smith perform without feeling utterly electrified. She’s at her strongest when she’s at her most vulnerable, stripped of all the material garments and emotional safeguards designed to conceal one’s inner identity. After growing up in Ames, Iowa, and studying at Juilliard, Smith relocated to Israel, where she became a member of Ohad Naharin’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company. That journey could be the subject of a film in itself, yet Elvira Lind’s masterful documentary, “Bobbi Jene,” begins at the precise moment when the dancer decides to return home. Her years of training at Batsheva, where she learned the Gaga dance method developed by Naharin (also the subject of a recent documentary), have prepared Smith for charting her own path in America. Yet as she finishes her last year with the company, she finds herself falling for a younger dancer, Or Schraiber, who has no intention of leaving his home in Tel Aviv.
This is Lind’s second directorial feature, arriving after her 2014 debut, “Songs for Alexis,” which also told a beautifully nuanced love story. Upon premiering in Tribeca, “Bobbi Jene” deservedly won the Best Documentary prize days before it screened at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. That’s where I caught the picture, and it instantly earned a place on my list of the year’s best films. Smith recently chatted with me on the phone about the importance of listening to one’s body, the joy of teaching and the liberating power of dance.
How did this film come about?
I met Elvira through a dear friend of mine. She had just wrapped “Songs for Alexis,” and she looked at me and was basically like, “You’re next.” I didn’t really think anything would happen, but she bought a plane ticket, showed up and started filming. Our friendship grew out of filming the documentary. From the beginning, I could tell that Elvira was one of the strongest women I’ve ever met in the most fragile and powerful way. I connected to her and we had so much passion together. When I saw “Songs for Alexis,” I was immediately onboard one hundred percent with her making a film about me. I believe in what she has to say and what she’s doing.
Your portrayal of sexuality—such as the orgasm that occurs during “A Study on Effort”—is extraordinary in how it obliterates the stigma so often associated with it.
That stigma is everywhere, no matter where I happen to be performing. Inside of the performance, it’s so important for me to show that pleasure and how it can travel through the body. There’s another moment in “A Study on Effort” where you see me pushing. I want to show how the effort that comes from pushing or lifting or taking care of something or finding pleasure can actually live in the body in the same way. The act of bringing pleasure isn’t all that disconnected from everything else that we do physically. When I perform, I just try to stay really honest and true to what I’m sensing inside my body, and that comes before any sort of thoughts or motives or desires. I’m staying true to what happens in the body first instead of what happens in my mind first.
How has dance helped you overcome an eating disorder?
A lot of times in life, we move before we think instead of actually listening before we move. In terms of eating disorders, that whole connection between what you think and what you feel is totally severed. In dance, you’re entirely focused on what you’re sensing in your body and the thoughts that come from that, as well as those primal desires and senses. When you listen to your body, you want to move. You don’t want to sit still, and the older I get, the more I sense that.
What are your impressions of Tel Aviv?
It’s definitely full of contradictions, but it’s also full of beauty, and I think that I’ve learned a lot from the passion of the place. It’s very hot in its temperament, for better or for worse, and the sense of time is very different. Things are slower here. When I first landed in Tel Aviv, I was shocked. Someone would eat a strawberry and they would go crazy after one bite. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m used to eating strawberries. Here, people would bite into a piece of fruit and they’d just gasp, “Oh my god, I can taste it with my whole body!” [laughs] Most of us in the states aren’t like that.
Your art has a similar effect on audiences in how it makes them more aware of their bodies.
Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company gave me something that I didn’t know I had lost. They gave me that connection between my effort and my pleasure and how important and necessary it is. That connection sort of subconsciously drifted into every part of my life. Ohad talks a lot about letting go in order to give more. He talks about strengthening your own engine so you can work less and carry more. If it takes less effort to carry yourself, then you can carry other people and other things. He sees the body as a container that has the ability to contain more and more.
Was it crucial for you to move back home in order to find your own voice?
Totally. I knew that I had to move back. It’s very important for me to make work where I am from. One of my largest regrets was never learning the language in Tel Aviv. I never learned Hebrew and I really wanted to communicate with the people, but I was always feeling like Tel Aviv wasn’t my home. The idea of retuning to America with more tools in my toolbox had always been interesting to me. It enabled me to have a new perspective on where I grew up, as well as a second chance, in a way. I was really curious about bringing all of these tools into my teaching. I teach a lot to make a living, and I wanted to share these tools with other dancers.
What has your experience of teaching been like?
Being able to teach has been one of the largest gifts I have ever been given. I’m so grateful for the chance to teach and for the people who have supported me in being able to do it. It helps so much to connect with people who are younger than you. Their excitement keeps you young too, and that’s so important as a dancer, since you’re always using your body. Spreading that fire helps to keep it alive, and my students and I keep the fire burning together. It’s been a huge opportunity for me to try and show women how powerful they can be and how fragile at the same time, and how those two things don’t have to cancel each other out. In a dance form where you are taught to become smaller and smaller, it’s my goal to allow people to bust out and become extremely wide and vast and wild. That’s all I want to do.
Have you found strength in that vulnerability, both physically and emotionally?
Yes, in both cases. I feel like you can only be as strong as you can be weak. Your arms have to be getting wider on both sides. You can’t just go in one direction. I can only go as fast as I can go slow. I need to learn how to be slower in order to be faster.
I loved your conversation in the film with Laura Dern, who I’ve always considered a pillar of female strength.
Me too! I was so excited to meet her and our meeting was by chance. It was so interesting to talk with her about the similarities between acting and dancing—where she feels held back or where she finds more freedom. At what point does she have to put the container on and how do women deal with that? How do you be strong and vulnerable at the same time in a particular role? You may feel the need to expose but also withhold, while at the same time remaining clear. How do you stay true inside all of those contradictions?
What was your collaboration like with Elvira?
When Elvira gets a camera in her hand, it’s like she disappears. It’s crazy. [laughs] I flew to Copenhagen to see the final cut, and up until then, I had no idea what the film was going to be like. About 15 minutes into the film, I honestly started thinking, ‘Maybe they can switch this part,’ or, ‘I think there’s a better clip of me dancing somewhere.’ I was being very self-critical until I realized that she and her editor, Adam Nielsen, must’ve spent so many days narrowing down which clips to use and what order they should be presented in. Suddenly, all of those fears went away. I trusted that she and Adam put every bit of their care into the film. I would want somebody to trust me like that. It’s as much their work as it is mine. The film’s premiere at Tribeca was terrifying, exciting and overwhelming. Some people came up to me and said that the film made them want to connect with their own passion.
How receptive was Or to the project overall?
Filming had already started before we had even met, so I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. But he was totally up for it. I think he helped me feel more comfortable in front of the camera because he’s so comfortable. He’s comfortable anywhere, whenever, all the time. [laughs] Right now, I’m visiting Tel Aviv to be with Or, and then we’re coming back to New York in August.
You have many wonderful performances on YouTube, and one of the most touching is “Poem for Or.”
I made that for him before I left. At the end, I’m holding the road—a road back to him—even though we are standing so far apart.
For more information on Smith, visit the official site for “A Study on Effort.”