Who is Bobbi Jene?
Most dance documentaries are produced on the heels of a landmark in a dancer’s career. Usually that milestone comes somewhere between the middle or end of a long career–the completion of a major body of work, documentation of the creative process in producing a significant dance, or as a tribute to a principle soloist. The person featured in such (thinking, Wendy Whelan/“Restless Creature, Pina Bausch/Pina, etc.) most often has achieved international name recognition, with viewers longing to know the intricate details of that celebrity’s life and creative process. Not so with the West Coast premiere of the “Bobbi Jene” documentary that is part of the 37th Annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
At 30 years of age, dancer/choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith is the subject of a one hour and thirty-five minute documentary that begins as she quits the highly praised Israeli dance company, Batsheva. “Bobbi Jene” starts with Smith giving notice to her mentor, artistic director, and former lover, Ohad Naharin. The camera (Elvira Lind) is immediately up close and personal as if shot from a selfie stick that has its lens in all of Smith’s personal matters, like it or not. It’s as if Lind’s camera has moved in with Smith and her boyfriend, Or Schraiber, as if she has become Smith’s shadow through all the mundane moments of her day. Smith’s dilemmas and dreams, along with her boyfriend’s often fully naked body are all there for the world to see. “I want to get to that place where I have no strength to hide anything,” she declares later during an interview.
The trouble is, for those who have never heard of Bobbi Jene–which would be the majority of viewers–at this early part of the film her life looks like most camera savvy millennials confronted with making life decisions. With the exception of interspersed clips of Smith dancing with Batsheva, she is as ordinary as all those young adults overcoming food disorders or dealing with the passionate complexities of romantic relationships. She is also not the first dancer/trendsetter to leave a major company to pursue aspiration and creative expression, so how is her journey different, or is it? Is Smith’s innocently complex psychological and emotional states that swing mostly between smiling and crying with a fierce intensity that holds the two in place enough to make her interesting?
Seeing Smith dance in snippets from Batsheva is captivating but does little to separate her talent from the many brilliant dancers from that company which includes her boyfriend. And, it’s Naharin’s creativity that we experience through these clips, not Smith’s uniqueness. “Bobbi Jene” as a documentary relies on the impact of the 2015 documentary of her mentor Ohad Naharin, “Mr Gaga” yet lacks the foundation to be compared to it. Likewise, her head over heels romance with Schraiber doesn’t distinguish itself from other relationships of its kind other than a 10-year age difference. You might even question why you are watching this documentary for the first 40 minutes of it as it pieces together Smith’s charmed, “for the roses,” artistic life in Tel Aviv, her boxes arriving from Israel to the states, her childhood bedroom in Iowa, her baseball enthusiasm as a kid, a close up of a family dog, and the inevitable challenges of trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her younger lover.
It isn’t until we see Smith auditioning her new solo performance to a colleague in the states–in preparation for international dance festival in Jerusalem–that the documentary takes shape. Here there are less short snippets of the mundane and longer framed episodes of her process, including the intensely personal finale to her solo piece where Smith dancing naked simulates intercourse with a sandbag. “Not everyone wants to go on the ride with you…” says the colleague but by this point we are on the ride because Smith’s raw intensity has transformed itself into a full up in in-your-face performance. Yet, it’s the final unintended performance of “Bobbi Jene” that really puts Smith’s naked ambition out on a limb when her plan to propose to Schraiber is thwarted. Over fine linen in a trendy New York restaurant, before she has a chance to pop the big question, Schraiber tells her he isn’t ready to leave his life in Israel for a life with Smith in the states.
David E. Moreno