looking winded, bobbi jene leans against a wall outside
Bobbi Jene Smith, seen here in a scene from the documentary "Bobbi Jene," spent nearly a decade with Batsheva Dance Company.

S.F. dancer goes ‘Gaga’ in dynamic documentary

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There is a scene in “Bobbi Jene” in which the dancer being profiled explores the “simple” gesture of lifting her arms upward. Elbows bent, palms turned toward her face, she lifts, drops and raises her arms, hoisting and thrusting them to the limits of her shoulder joints — again and again — until her lithe torso is bathed in sweat, her waist-length hair plastered to her form. Her face is lost in an ecstasy of repetition, her breath an ambivalent pant of pleasure or pain.

It’s sexy.

“I’ve always been excited by seeing people do everyday efforts: the way a mom picks up a kid, how someone runs when they’re late to catch the bus,” Bobbi Jene Smith said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv in advance of her trip to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for the West Coast premiere of “Bobbi Jene.”

“Everyone’s dancing all the time,” she added, “even if they don’t think they are. My dance, ‘A Study on Effort,’ is an amplified version of the actions that I see all around me.”

Welcome to the corporeal world of American dancer-choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith, where the body is an existential tool and pleasure is the fruit of effort.

As revealed in a one-hour documentary by Danish filmmaker Elvira Lind, Smith is the quintessential dancer, profoundly sentient and driven to express things both personal and universal, as vulnerable in spirit as she is powerful in form. “Bobbi Jene” plays in the festival July 28 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and July 29 at the Albany Twin.

In addition, Smith and the SFJFF are offering a dance program on Aug. 2 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. In what is billed as an “intimate duet” with violinist Keir GoGwilt, Smith will perform her latest configuration of “A Study on Effort,” the development of which is traced in the film.

Smith learned much of her physical vocabulary from renowned Israeli dancer-choreographer Ohad Naharin in the laboratory of his famed Batsheva Dance Company, where Smith spent almost a decade before setting off on her own path three years ago.

“Gaga,” the movement language Naharin developed, is described as “a new way of gaining knowledge and self-awareness through your body [that] connects conscious and unconscious movement and allows for an experience of freedom and pleasure.”

Today, the Gaga method is taught on two levels, for performing dancers and for the general public; in fact, Smith currently is teaching Gaga, as she has done many times previously, in a five-week session for the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance.

“Bobbi Jene” tells the story of a young girl from a middle class, Christian family in Iowa whose encounter with Naharin set a new course for the rest of her life. Before that, everything was prelude: toddler gymnastics, ballet classes, dance academies in Canada and North Carolina, and finally, Juilliard in New York. It was after teaching a workshop at Juilliard that Naharin proposed that Smith come to study with him in Israel. Without hesitation she packed her bags. She was 20.

“I knew nothing about Israel,” Smith recounts in the film. “I didn’t even have a passport” at that time.

What followed were three years of intensive training in the junior corps, after which she was promoted to the main Batsheva Dance Company, a vibrant melting pot of dancers from all over the world. What is harder to measure is the overall impact on Smith of 10 years in Tel Aviv.

“One awareness that grew in me during my decade in Israel was the awareness of pleasure, and of time,” Smith told J. “In Israeli culture, there’s a sense of ‘This is all we’ve got.’ People give more time to appreciate life, to appreciate each other. That will forever stay with me.”

Along the way, there were relationships — including one with her mentor, Naharin — and ultimately love, with Or Schraiber, a member of the company 10 years her junior. Her experiences with Batsheva, and more specifically with Gaga, also caused Smith to re-evaluate her ambitions.

“I had to re-examine why I dance and what I get from dancing,” she said. “We talked so much about ‘connecting your effort to your pleasure,’ and I remember thinking at first, ‘What?’ What does that mean? It was a whole new awakening of how to listen to my body.”

When the documentary begins, Smith has already decided that it is time to return to the United States and strike out on her own as a dance artist. What will happen to her relationship with Schraiber is unknown, providing a tension beyond the obvious career questions.

Lind decided to make this film — which won best documentary feature, along with awards for cinematography and editing, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — almost immediately after meeting Smith.

“We became extremely good friends and supporters of one another’s work,” Smith said. “It felt natural to collaborate with her, so it never really felt like I was being filmed. When she gets a camera in her hand, she disappears. I trust her as an artist. I believe in her.”

That trust is evident in scenes of great intimacy and realism between Smith and people important to her, in particular her lover, Schraiber, as they struggle with the reality of her impending departure to the United States. In fact, online movie sites describe the movie as a “drama” and “romance” even though it’s a documentary.

Smith’s choreographic focus on physical effort runs counter to the illusion of effortlessness that professionals dancers strive to achieve. It pairs well with her personal struggle to forge a new life for the couple in the US. Her effort to synthesize her life and art is deeply thought-provoking, recalling the famous phrase that “nothing worth having comes easy.”

“Bobbi Jene” screens at 8:55 p.m. July 28 at Castro Theatre, S.F., and 8:55 p.m. July 29 at Albany Twin, Albany. (Unrated, 95 minutes). “A Study on Effort: A Duet Between Bobbi Jene and Keir GoGwilt” performance at 8 p.m. Aug. 2 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F. $35 tickets required; SFJFF passes do not apply.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.