Elvira Lind’s documentary profile of contemporary dancer Bobbi Jene Smith captures new beginnings, endings, and everything in between, and faces the fact that you can switch your life around at just about any time. Having left Guillard at 21 to join Israeli dance troupe Batsheva, we meet Bobbi in a state of arrested development, but about to change things.
As a dancer her accomplishments are unparalleled, but she’s now 31 with a Kanken Backpack, a decade younger boyfriend, and little of her own agency. In the first scene, one of several shot like dramatic reconstructions – Bobbi tells her teacher, Ohad Nahrin, her mentor, ex-lover, the company director of Batsheva over dinner that she’s moving back to America to forge her own path. He accepts, not before he’s eaten some food off her plate. He loves rippling flesh, we are told, and Bobbi credits his Gaga technique with overcoming her eating disorder. Israel doesn’t feel like home, it’s a life defined by Nahrin. Returning to America she isn’t followed by his spectre, but her notions of home are indeed tested.
It’s clear that Bobbi, with her wild face full of Gena Rowlands mania, harbours a resentment or fear of ageing. Her boyfriend, Or, seems excited by the age gap. When they discuss it on her birthday, Benjamin Button plays on a television in the background while she looks on in horror. Much of the runtime actually finds Bobbi contemplating her relationship as she tries to detach from Israel. Nahrin taunts her, surprised that they can stay together. But their comfort with each other, and indeed with Lind’s camera, is impressive. They bite and lick each other, and those last moments both on and off stage before she leaves for America do a good job of capturing the melancholia of endings.
There’s a deceptively apolitical approach to the Israel/United States interaction. The traditional American values of Smith’s family are contrasted against the super liberal Israeli family of her boyfriend . After the first performance of her new piece (risque doesn’t cover it), Or’s parents present Bobbi with lace underwear, the father praising her ‘perfect body’. I couldn’t help but think of a similar scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), in which spaghetti was used to signify the bourgeois liberal world that lead character Adele was learning to operate. And Bobbi seems far more comfortable with Israeli life than she does walking the streets of New York.
‘Pain/pleasure is just as much… its the same thing’ she says. Like many film critics, my knowledge of dance goes about as far as Martha Graham and Pina Bausch. But Jene Smith’s work comes across as an extension of the two. Lind doesn’t give a whole lot of context for those less versed in the dance world, but what we see of the rehearsals are fascinating. A protracted shot of Bobbi shaking her entire body, or another of her pushing against a wall in New York, pays off later when we see their place within her finished piece.
Dance is used as soliloquy, often when Bobbi is unable to verbalise an emotion.
This builds to her new piece, a completely nude gyration against a bag of sand. We’re introduced to this through an uncomfortable voyeuristic shot, from right behind a male observer. Without having been given a context for why Bobbi is putting this piece together, this protracted scene may come across as exploitative. But juxtaposed against the blank audience that watches it in full later, espousing rapturous praise, ignoring the presence of sex or controversy in the piece, Lind highlights a dissonance in the art world.
We wonder how her body can move from one intricate position to another, similarly, we are left in the dark about how Bobbi Jene puts it together. This is not a film about process but more a holistic sketchbook. Bobbi casually mentions her eating disorder, or the affair with her teacher. But we don’t have access beyond her warm, vulnerable persona, or those stirring dance moves, to work her out. Rather than view these elements as life altering, Lind doesn’t linger, ploughing through the day to day. It’s like this that we see how a decade could fly past for our protagonist, and how she can suddenly realise her need to explore her art by herself.
Bobbi Jene is available on all major VoD platforms on Monday, November 12th. It is part of the Walk This Way collection.