The Iowan Who Got Herself a Passport to Dance for Batsheva

Before Bobbi Smith met choreographer Ohad Naharin, she didn't know where Israel was on a map.

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

The artistic and the personal seem to be inextricably entwined in Bobbi Jean Smith. The 29-year-old American dancer joined the Batsheva Dance Company some eight years ago. About a year ago she switched to the troupe of Sharon Eyal, and only a few months later returned to Batsheva. Now she is staging a production of her own, a dance called “Arrowed,” which she will perform with Shamel Pitts, another Batsheva dancer.

Smith is the daughter of a baseball coach and a family therapist. She grew up in Iowa, was accepted to The Julliard School for the performing arts after high school, but studied there for only about three years out of four. There she met Ohad Naharin, who has been working with Julliard for years, and in 2005 she moved to Israel to dance in the Batsheva Dance Company. “I approached Ohad and told him I wanted to dance with his troupe,” she says. “He told me, ‘Move to Israel,’ and that’s what I did.”

What did you know about Israel before moving here?

“At Julliard I didn’t even have a passport. I had never left the United States. Now I think I was very foolish and ignorant at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to dance for Ohad. I don’t think I even knew where Israel was on the map. My parents of course didn’t want me to move; they were afraid, they said Israel is dangerous. But they knew that they really had no choice.”

Of her years of work at Batsheva, Smith says, “It was crazy. At first, when I had just started, I felt I could no longer distinguish between good and bad in the way I dance. I was lost. But this encounter led me to something new − until Batsheva I never felt confident about being weak, in dance or in my personal life. All my training had led me to think that I had to be strong all the time. With Ohad it was the first time I could be weak.”

Is there a difference in the work with Sharon Eyal and with Naharin? After all, you left Batsheva for her new troupe.

“I don’t feel they’re different. Really. It’s like saying how different you feel in this restaurant compared to another one. With Sharon it was simply a different type of home, and I lived in it, but what happened inside me remained the same − the reason why I dance, the texture of the movement, the emotion, the listening, the absence of fear. But it’s true that Sharon has insane drive.”

During the few months she spent in Eyal’s troupe, Smith traveled with her to Sweden for a new production created by the choreographer for The Goteburg Ballet, and to perform her familiar role in “House,” in which for several minutes she walks from the back to the front of the stage fully nude. “In that nudity I felt as confident as possible,” she says. “I was totally protected in Sharon’s troupe. It was a phenomenal team of people.”

Why did you return to Batsheva after such a short time?

“I wanted to be near Ohad. The work with Gaga [a dance technique invented by Naharin] is a study of life, from which I couldn’t feel distant.”

About leaving Eyal’s troupe she says: “I really don’t feel that I left them. My growth as an artist with Ohad is not finished. I left Batsheva at the time, for example, because I felt I needed a significant change in my personal life. I felt stuck, empty, and I yearned to escape. I’m not sure from what. It’s quite clear not from Batsheva itself, because I escaped back to it. But I wanted to create an obstacle for myself in order to experience more things in the world. I was afraid to leave and it became too convenient for me. I asked myself, what about my voice, what do I have to say, what emerges from me and why am I still in Israel, I really have to leave. And I really did leave, I felt in every fiber of my body that I was leaving.”

During her years at Batsheva she created short works, which she says “always dealt with the fact that I was in the role of the woman, with the question of how it feels to be a woman. I used sex in order to create art. One day I said to myself that I wanted to be more than a girl, that I could say more important things to the world.”

Smith usually gives keys and blankets she sews herself to people close to her whom she’s about to leave. “Ohad has a lot of keys,” she admits. “Every time I thought of leaving him I gave him a key.” When asked about her famous affair with him − which lasted for three years while she was dancing with Batsheva − she prefers not to respond. She doesn’t want to say anything about her present love life either.

She’s willing to say that Naharin gave her very good advice about her creative work. “He helped me understand that heaviness comes in many colors. I really hope that some day I’ll perform ‘Arrowed’ with him, because he’s a huge inspiration in my life. That would be amazing.”

From the time she joined the Batsheva ensemble in August 2005 until now, with the exception of the two months when she worked with Eyal, Smith has danced in all of Naharin’s works, including those from the 1990s that were restaged, such as “The Flood,” “Anaphase,” and “Kir/Zina,” some from the beginning of the millennium such as “Mammoths” “Three” and many others. But she feels she actually was more prominent in Eyal’s works, and especially in the lead roles in “A work of Freedom,” “Makarova Kabisa” and “Bertolina,” which demand profound emotional exposure on her part and were characterized by a general atmosphere of exhibitionism. Eyal’s temperament is well suited to Smith’s mode of dramatic expression, the total emotional and physical dedication. As for her role in “House,” it seems like Smith was the only one who could perform the role, and that it was tailored for her.

She herself says, in reply to a question about the works she performed: “In ‘Mammoths’ I felt very focused thanks to the immediate connection we had with the audience. That required that I be open and vulnerable, and made me more honest. With Sharon I felt that the world of ‘House’ was very lucid and clear, like diving into cold water. But I don’t feel that if I have a larger role, it necessarily says anything about me as a dancer.”

She started working on “Arrowed” about two years ago, as part of the Batsheva Dancers Create workshops, and performed the first 10 minutes of the work last year. Last Thursday she did a full-length performance for the first time, and in so doing joins other Batsheva guest artists, like Ariel Cohen, Noa Zuk, Gili Navot and Ella Rothschild.

“Arrowed” is a one-hour duet constructed as an interview. It presents the conversation, a supposedly simple situation, as an endless activity. Two dancers, a man and a woman, are seated on loudspeakers and speak in English. Sitting on loudspeakers, says Smith, was Naharin’s idea. The man issues orders to the woman; sometimes she talks and he listens. He begins with a series of personal questions and she sometimes doesn’t reply. Smith’s staging is simple: There is one spotlight and the two look disconnected from time and place, floating. It’s the talking that leaves signs. Smith says her source of inspiration was the famous dialogue from the film “Paris, Texas” by Wim Wenders, in which the hero meets his beloved for a conversation in which she doesn’t recognize his voice.

“I’ve always been interested in how much mystery and subtext there is in a conversation,” says Smith. “How much we can change what others think of us by our reply. For example, I can feel that I know you, but when I ask you a new question a world will be opened to me. I’m interested in how a question can be specific and universal at the same time.”

Smith, who doesn’t speak Hebrew, says she plans to create various versions of “Arrowed” in the coming years. “Maybe one day I, aged 28, will interview myself at the age of 82; in other words, it doesn’t have to be two dancers in synchronization,” she explains. “What interests me particularly in an interview is that you never know until the end whether you want to be the interviewee or the interviewer. In my life I always ask a lot of questions. A real question is in effect directed at yourself.”

Smith wrote the text for the work. But although she writes poetic texts both for the stage and for the drawer, she says she hardly every reads plays or poetry. Nor does she watch dance performances much. She does read books by Jack Kerouac and watched the films of John Cassavetes.

“I relate to Kerouac, for example, as poetry and am very influenced by American literature. I would call what I do visual poetry,” she says.

The text of “Arrowed” includes both existential questions such as “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?” along with prayers, commands ‏(“Stand and spread your hands”‏) and even theological questions. “What does it say about me that I don’t believe in God but I do pray?” she says. “These questions are ostensibly cliches, but not when they’re presented together.”

Smith has already created four versions of “Arrowed”: The first is a 10-minute version for the Batsheva creative workshops; the second, which she performed with American actor Oscar Isaac ‏(who was in the film “Drive”‏), is supposed to be a short film; the third, which she performed in the winter on a mountaintop in Sweden with dancer Tom Weinberger, was documented in a series of photo stills. The fourth is now being performed full length.

She says that “Arrowed” is meant to become a series of works from all the spheres of art − dance, film, theater, still photographs, literature − which will record various interviews. “Every time I do ‘Arrowed’ I document it, because documenting is the most important thing, it’s the real performance,” she says. “The archive of all the ‘Arrowed’ interviews is in effect the work − my way of observing myself and the people around me getting older, to see how my voice changes and how the world changes over the years.”

The work is called “Arrowed” because “I believe that there are arrows everywhere that represent what comes to you and what you send, what you say and what you conceal. I have a small tattoo of an arrow on the inside of my elbow.”

In her childhood Smith studied artistic gymnastics, and already at the age of 12 she left her parents’ home in order to dance at a ballet school in Winnipeg, Canada. “They threw me out after two years,” she says, “I wasn’t meant to be a ballerina.” She studied in a high school for the arts in North Carolina, and there she discovered choreography and contemporary dance. She says that “Arrowed” in effect originated already then, when she began writing as an adolescent. “At first it was about ‘me,’ but now I already write about ‘we,’ ‘that’ and ‘they.’ I always begin with words and talk to myself even while I’m dancing.”

The only choreographer from whom she draws inspiration is Naharin, because “The way in which he captures temporariness is itself poetry.” Regarding her transition from dancing to choreography she says: “I don’t want to be a choreographer. I see myself as a type of poet of dancing, who does what she has to do without restrictions of definitions and headings. A dancer, a choreographer − for me it’s the same thing. ‘Arrowed’ will be my main thing in the coming years and I don’t know whether I’ll create anything else. The truth is that the familiar path to becoming a choreographer doesn’t suit me. I really don’t like telling other people what to do. Being a choreographer means a lot of responsibility, and I feel that I have to search deeper within myself.

“As a dancer,” she continues, “I try to be as honest and open as I can, I’m always trying to remove and peel off. Sometimes nothing comes off, but basically that’s what I’m trying to do. This temperament really does work with Sharon’s works, but in personal relationships too, for example, I don’t always enjoy being honest, but it’s as though I’m being compelled to do so.”

Sharon Eyal says that Smith is “an emotional phenomenon. She’s one of the most total dancers I know. On the one hand there’s something about her that’s connected to the ground, rooted, and on the other hand something spiritual. I feel that in her ability to interpret, and in her work. I connected strongly to ‘Arrowed.’”

Why, in your opinion, did she leave Batsheva and join your troupe?

Eyal: “Everyone who joined did so because he felt he had to. In addition, Bobbi and I have a kind of identification. You know how people sometimes cry and you can’t explain why? So I can explain why − I feel why Bobbi is crying.”

How did you feel when she decided to return to Batsheva?

“I’m happy about every move, I trust her and believe in her. I want things to go well for her. I don’t get into why she left because I feel that it’s her personal choice. I believe in dynamics and organic behavior.”

Luke Jacobs, a veteran rehearsal director at Batsheva, speaks of a committed and dedicated dancer. “At present I can also see her added maturity as a dancer.”

Dina Eldor, the CEO of Batsheva, adds: “Bobbi is a veteran dancer in the troupe who has contributed a great deal of her great talent, and is also a unique performing artist. The initiative behind staging the evening was hers. Regarding future cooperation with her, we haven’t defined a formal cooperation, although we’re always open and flexible about artistic proposals, particularly from dancers in the troupe who create independently.”

We received no response from Ohad Naharin. Smith herself says, in reply to the question of where she sees herself 10 years from now: “Doing ‘Arrowhead.’ I’ll always dance, somewhere, everywhere. Maybe I’ll earn a living from teaching. I want to teach Gaga and help spread it all over the world. In the past year when I was outside of Batsheva, for example, I was worried about what I would do, how I would earn money, how I would do what I love. Now I only want to be where I am. I have to work.”

Regarding her feeling prior to her first full-length performance, she says: “I feel weight and responsibility, a feeling of courage and at the same time, modesty. It’s not that I have something to teach, to prove or to show you, but I want to share my research.”

Dancers Bobbi Smith and Shamel Pitts in 'Arrowed.' Credit: Gadi Dagon
Dancers Bobbi Smith and Shamel Pitts in 'Arrowed.'Credit: Gadi Dagon

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