BOBBI JENE SMITH with Sima Belmar
I first saw Bobbi Jene Smith in the documentary Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance (2015). The film is about Ohad Naharin, the charismatic artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, who discovered Smith when she was a 21-year-old student at Juilliard. Mr. Gaga features gorgeous footage of Naharin as a child, a young adult, a soldier, and a choreographer dancing, always dancing. There is also ample footage of his works, both in development in the studio and on stage, and it is in these scenes that the viewer discovers Smith. Whether running on a treadmill for the entire 70 minutes of Last Work (2015) or compulsively strumming an air guitar in a rehearsal for Sadeh 21 (2011), her seemingly improvisational, real-time engagement with choreographed movement puts everything around her into soft focus.
My second encounter with Smith was in the documentary Bobbi Jene (2017). This film follows Smith as she leaves Batsheva after a decade with the company to return to the States and have a go at being a choreographer. I loved the film but many, many reviewers did not. Ken Jaworowski writes in The New York Times, “Enigmatic to an extreme, the documentary ‘Bobbi Jene’ may interest viewers who are well versed in contemporary dance. All others are on their own.” Sheila O’Malley on RogerEbert.com complains that the film “doesn’t know what story it wants to tell,” and that for a film about a dancer, “there’s not that much dance in it.” Gary Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times says director Elvira Lind “keeps too much on the surface.” It’s interesting how these kinds of comments are often lobbed at contemporary concert dance itself—what does it mean? I don’t get it! Where’s the story? Why aren’t they dancing? I take O’Malley’s and Jaworowski’s comments to mean that Bobbi Jene is very much a dance film, a work that refuses to translate into linear, verbal prose the multisensory experience of dancing. As for Goldstein, I think he and others are stuck in a psychoanalytic model of film analysis, unprepared and perhaps unwilling to reframe “the surface” as what is materially available to the senses.
Both Bobbi Jenes, dancer and film, are invested in that phenomenological, physical approach to meaning-making. One scene in the film captures Smith alone in a studio in San Francisco, large windows looking out onto an Italianate row house enshrouded in fog. In a navy blue and white floral sun dress over black leggings, she throws her hands over her head and lets them drop, over and over again, following their rise and fall with her head, faster and faster until the movement begins to reverse itself, pulling her down. She sweats and pants as she hunches over, her long hair clinging to her face and chest. She eventually stands, returning to the original gesture but more gently, minimally. Smith follows the movement where it goes, to its extremes, slowing, speeding, shrinking, rising. This is just one example of how Smith explores the many meanings the “same” movement can have, and it constitutes a lens for viewing the film—how can an embodied investigation of everyday life yield different stories?
On November 1, 2018, I got to witness Smith in all her material glory in the world premiere of With Care (2018) at ODC Theater in San Francisco. Smith created the work in collaboration with violinist Keir GoGwilt, who performs alongside her, fellow violinist Miranda Cuckson, and Or Schraiber (former Batsheva dancer and Smith’s husband). All four are members of AMOC (American Modern Opera Company), led by artistic directors Matthew Aucoin (composer, conductor, pianist) and Zack Winokur (director, choreographer, dancer).
The day after the premiere, Smith and I sat in a little park in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco where we talked about the film and the dance. I did a lot of the talking during this interview because when I asked what she’d like to see in print she said, “More of what people saw.” Smith sat mostly erect, coiling, stretching, vocalizing, gesturing to flesh out the schematic provided by her words. Smith is as cautious in speech as she is abandoned in her dancing. Her delivery is slightly stilted, the words threaded with pauses, almost as if to control a stutter. She likes to joke that she moved to Israel and, not only did she not learn Hebrew, she lost her English as well. It’s as if her body can hear the ways her speech is not going where she wants it to, and so everything from guts to fascia galvanize to slow the words down, interrupting with glacial force, slow, wise, enormously clear, and powerful.
Sima Belmar (Rail): I think a lot about the ethics of care in the dance field, so I’m interested in the carework that went into the creation of With Care.
Bobbi Jene Smith: When Keir and I started to go into these questions of what is care and when do we feel it, I found that when I try to hear the care, I actually hear the destruction louder. I hear the inner scream or that something ancient not being heard or given space for. I feel almost that cry that needs to be rocked [crosses her arms around the level of her solar plexus and vigorously rocks the gesture]. We talked a lot about time and space and how that is so rare to be given especially in an art form that demands it, and how time and space from the outside can look like neglect or distance, but it’s actually the most precious thing.
Rail: Whenever I watch dance, I attend to the labor before anything else until something takes me out of my head, which doesn’t always happen, and that’s fine. So while watching With Care, I was thinking about your training and about how the piece was made, and then you started to sound. You threw your arms back as you walked stage right to left, and all of a sudden your personhood or character started to push at and leak through the movement. That’s when I dropped my thinking watcher—I just got hit by wordless emotion because you were cycling through so many feelings very quickly. And I thought, well, that’s what this is, an experience of cycling through emotions. The piece is showing us that because we are constantly cycling, we don’t always know what we need at a given moment. And that’s why we have to do so much work to discover the things that are not being attended to, either by ourselves or other people, and learn how to ask for care.
In the press materials and previews for With Care, you are described time and again as a mixture of vulnerability and strength. But you’re saying they’re one and the same. And that’s what I see in your dancing: I see training, endless practice, rigorous research, those laborious things that go on to get that exquisite presence.
Smith: It’s not casual. Virtuosity comes in so many forms and it has been put into this box as virtuosity equals jumps and legs. And actually the virtuosity of commitment and the virtuosity in surrendering and vulnerability is like [makes bomb noise]. For me, that is virtuosity: being able to tap your weaknesses in front of people watching. I’m curious what you do see. I know what I feel, but I actually don’t know what people see.
Rail: After the show, one local dancer walked into the lobby and said, “I’m going to have to work on my scapula.” Because there was so much activity in your back space. What connected with her as a dancer was, oh there’s range, there’s expressive range in these parts of my body that I don’t attend to. Finding the expressive range in every pore. And that’s what it looks like to me. It looks like, to get here, this person had to explore all the range and all the expressive possibility and then follow the impulses of certain ones to fix what we’re going to see.
Smith: Well that’s Gaga for sure. And that is my process with finding the movement. I’m going more into Authentic Movement, which is not Gaga. Well, what is and what is not Gaga? In Gaga, it’s very clear that we don’t close our eyes. It’s the idea that you don’t shut off one sense to heighten another. That’s the main difference. I do my own version of it [Authentic Movement], closing the eyes and learning how to follow the impulses and trying to amplify those impulses in real time with my eyes open. Mining the subconscious for a long time with the eyes closed, going into those territories, is super interesting for me.
Rail: The Gaga idea that if we don’t shut off one sense to heighten another, we’ll wind up with a level playing field of sensory experience, denies that there is already a sensory hierarchy (sight and hearing prevailing over everything else) and that’s why when you suddenly spoke in With Care, I was ripped out of the experience. But then, right as you started speaking, this person behind me…
Smith: With the phone!
Rail: And it was such an aggressive ring! I’ve already been disrupted by your speech, and now I want to know where I am. But I was able to come back, and I actually came back with a very different sense because, when you first spoke I was like, “NOOOO! Don’t speak!” Which is not my usual response. But when the phone stopped ringing I was so happy to be back so I could hear the words.
Smith: Keir wrote that text. He wrote text for each person and then this one was the only one that stayed. And we tried it without the text. But everyone said it was so powerful to all of a sudden hear me speak, all of a sudden for her to have a voice.
Rail: So this is my debate: you’ve devoted your life so far to developing a voice that has vocalization but is largely non-verbal. We are not trained as a culture in attending to body language except in some creepy business training models that rely on power stances and things like that. And it always amuses me when, in the context of dance, speaking becomes a metaphor for voice, even though speaking is usually the definition of voice. And you had been voicing so eloquently throughout the dance, everybody on stage had been, through movement, music, manipulating sticks, whatever, that to then have the verbal have the last word seems to undercut the power of all of that. I suppose it could highlight that power as well.
Smith: Agreed. I still feel, I don’t know, maybe it will come in; maybe it will go out. I told Keir,“hey don’t get mad if one night I don’t say it. And the stage manager also. Just know, maybe it won’t come out.
Rail: I’ve talked a lot about what I saw. Tell me about what you felt when you were performing last night.
Smith: Last night, because it was the premiere, I was scared because I care, and because I want to speak and I want to communicate, and I want to put something out in the world that will move people to care.
Rail: Do you remember isolated moments? Like what was going on when you were sitting for that endless stretch of time?
Smith: Last night in particular, I was hoping to be more grounded. I felt the shift underneath, which kept me more present, more in the actual technique, in the craft of making the movement happen, of making the choreography happen. Ok, I need to execute this and the small adjustments and recalibration; oh well my weight’s here, what am I going to do about that to not fall over. Basically, I was going more into the craft and less into the emotional journey. During the run-through earlier that day, I was sitting there and I couldn’t stop crying, and that was what was moving the piece. And so then a part of me was like, why aren’t I there?! But also knowing that it’s ok to not get there, knowing that the choreography and the journey of the piece is working on its own.
Rail: I’m curious about what didn’t make it into the premiere. Give me the outtakes reel.
Smith: There was a whole interrogation between Or and me. He was interrogating me and I was stuck and he was like, “What did you see? Where did you go? Where are you? Are you dreaming? Why don’t you…?” And then there was a prayer that the men said, it turned into this kind of chant—it didn’t work. Also the two-headed violinist was out for a while.
Rail: [Sharp inhale.] Really? I’m so happy you found a way. It’s astonishing how the bodies shapeshift. The violinists were extraordinary, their physical presence alone, never mind their playing. There was so much kinesthetic intelligence, between Or’s slipping on sand and Keir nearly, but not actually, hitting you in the face with his violin bow—it’s like watching wisdom unfold, the collective wisdom that people think is genetic, but is really a function of practice.
Smith: You can practice listening. My dear friend [dancer] Doug Letheren said to listen to the wisdom in your pleasure. At first I was like, what!? And then I started to think it’s not just, oh, that feels good. If you actually follow the wisdom in the pleasure it will guide you into other places, into new patterns. People hear the word pleasure and it stops there. But you can follow it.
New Yorkers, in April you can follow Smith to the Joyce Theater where the Martha Graham Dance Company will be performing the world premiere of Deo, choreographed by Smith and Maxine Doyle. Footage of Smith in the studio with the MGDC dancers (courtesy of Dance Magazine) shows her in her signature black wrap dress, moving as if punched, hovering her hands at her solar plexus, walking unbowed by the gaze of others. Lucky dancers. Lucky audience.
writes the monthly column In Practice for the Dancers' Group publication In Dance, and teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley.