Film Review: Bobbi Jene

An absorbing documentary, not for family audiences, 'Bobbi Jene' spotlights an American dancer leaving her position as a star performer with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to return home and create her own choreography.
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An unflinchingly revealing personal portrait, the absorbing documentary Bobbi Jene follows extraordinary Iowa-born dancer Bobbi Jene Smith as she navigates a courageous life change, leaving her position as a star performer in the esteemed Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company to move back to the United States and establish herself as a choreographer. Not only is she, at the age of 30, trying to wedge herself into the highly competitive American dance community—where she is virtually unknown—but she’s also leaving behind her adoring boyfriend Or, as well as her mentor and former lover Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s artistic director. (To best appreciate this film, I recommend the masterful documentary Mr. Gaga—a study of Naharin and his work—as prerequisite viewing.)

It seems the social and psychological aspects of Bobbi Jene’s transition—more so than the details of the dancer’s professional career shift—are what really interest filmmaker Elvira Lind. While the intimately shot documentary offers enough performance footage for viewers to witness what a remarkable dancer Bobbi Lee is, and clarifies the centrality of dance in her life, the bulk of the screen time is devoted to exploring Bobbi Jene’s private emotional concerns and domestic relationships. After studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts (where she battled an eating disorder), Bobbi Jene attended Juilliard, but left before graduating in order to accept Naharin’s invitation to come to Israel and dance with his company. Eerily, when she arrived, he predicted, “You will stay ten years," which she did. A decade later, feeling an urgent need to go out and make her own work, she tells Naharin that she’s leaving—and that’s where the film’s story begins.

Though she tries from the get-go to convince Or to come to the United States with her, he won’t go; he loves Israel and considers it his “home for life.” So she moves to California alone. While she is welcomed there by her parents, a sister, and her sister’s cuddly newborn, there’s no question that what’s driving Bobbi Jene is her pressing personal need to create and perform her own choreography.

We watch her develop a dance piece from movement impulses she discovers by flailing her arms to exhaustion and pushing to the extremes of her muscular strength against a cement wall. She is intrigued by the idea that repeating a movement over and over eventually reverses its content. Correspondingly, Naharin had taught her that pleasure is the flip side of pain. Exerting effort, though painful, results in pleasure. This is something intuitively known by all dancers, and perhaps anyone who derives his or her sense of contentedness from hard work. In her dance piece—which we eventually see her perform, naked, as part of an international dance festival in Jerusalem—Bobbi Jene demonstrates this concept when, with the aid of a sandbag and repeated effortful movements, she achieves orgasm onstage.

Despite the importance of the movement concepts she’s struggling to understand and embrace, one can’t help but wonder why someone feels the need to engage in a sexual act in front of an audience. “I want to get to that place where I have no strength to hide anything,” Bobbi Jene tells an interviewer. When her mother expresses concern about the difficulty of exposing herself so thoroughly onstage, the dancer counters with her feeling that it’s also difficult to “withhold” or “under-expose” oneself. Maybe that’s true for members of today’s compulsively revealing, social-media-obsessed generation, but I suspect Bobbi Jene is highly unusual. Although not G-rated, her story makes for a fascinating film.

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