After a decade with Batsheva, Bobbi Jene Smith dances her way home

An Iowa childhood led her to Juilliard and ultimately Tel Aviv; Now, she talks about moving back to America – and the next chapter in an exciting, vibrant dance career.

Bobbi Jene Smith performs in the piece ‘Sadeh21’ choreographed by Ohad Naharin. (photo credit: GADI DAGON)
Bobbi Jene Smith performs in the piece ‘Sadeh21’ choreographed by Ohad Naharin.
(photo credit: GADI DAGON)
A milestone in the Israeli art world passed quietly in December: Bobbi Jene Smith left the Batsheva Dance Company after 10 seasons, to move back to America.
Smith was the perfect fit for Batsheva, one of the world’s premier contemporary dance companies. Audiences delighted in her fearless, intense performances in the company’s works.
She has danced in virtually the entire Batsheva repertory, and has made an indelible impression in many works by its artistic director, Ohad Naharin.
Batsheva is a company in which the choreography is the star, and yet Smith’s dancing radiated charisma, even as she worked seamlessly as part of the ensemble. In Naharin’s recent piece, The Hole, her daring stage presence beautifully complemented the reckless athleticism of the choreography. She blossomed as a dancer and a woman here, and began choreographing and performing her own pieces – notably the riveting dance-theater work, Arrowed. A few days before her final performance with the company in Tel Aviv, Smith sat down to talk about what being part of Batsheva has meant to her, and where she is headed.
She was a bit reluctant, as she was still processing her feelings about leaving the company and the city that have been her home for nearly a decade.
“Coming to Israel and joining Batsheva was the best choice I could have made. It was completely impulsive; I knew it was either going to be the best decision I was ever going to make, or the worst,” she said.
Although she is clear now that it was a positive decision, it also seemed an unlikely move. Smith, who is not Jewish, had no connection to Israel before she moved here. She grew up in Ames, Iowa; her father was a baseball coach and her family had no relationship to the arts. But Smith wanted to dance, and left home as a teen to study at a ballet school in Winnipeg, Canada. From there, she moved to an arts high school in North Carolina and then to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.
Her parents, who were supportive of her career and come to see her perform all over the world, were delighted when she began her training at one of the world’s most respected performing arts academies.
But then Batsheva came to Lincoln Center, where Naharin was setting his piece Tabula Rasa, and everything changed.
“I had never seen women like this; I had never seen women allowed to be so strong and fragile at the same time. It was if all the lines were taken away, and things could fly off of them. They broke every stereotype I had in my head, and ones that I didn’t know I had, of how women are supposed to dance. I could feel communication, I could feel the energy, it was so direct...
“There was also a sense of humor, it was funny, heartbreaking, sexy and mad, so alive and so open for everything... I hadn’t felt that before. I knew that this was it,” she recalled. “It just felt like home.”
But finding her onstage home meant uprooting herself from everything and everyone she had ever known.
“I had no idea what it would be like to live in Israel,” mused Smith, who knew no Hebrew when she arrived and has picked up just a bit of the language.
“I was very naïve, but I was searching for the unknown. To be a foreigner is to miss things, and that missing creates the best art. A lot of creativity comes from understanding where you were...
For some reason, I was so clear that this was what I wanted to do.”
Batsheva – which has dancers from all over the world – became a kind of family to her. And living in a country where so much was strange sparked her creativity.
“I’ve always been interested in communicating, and hearing a lot of words I didn’t know, and it made me hear things differently... With dancing, I associate words with each movement.”
Hearing a new language was part of the inspiration behind Arrowed, the unique, intense dance-theater duet she wrote and choreographed. In it, she and a man sit facing each other and the man fires questions at her, the answers to which change as she responds to them.
Smith has appeared in eight different versions of Arrowed in Israel and around the world. Oscar Isaac, the American actor who starred in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, is a Juilliard classmate of Smith’s, and he performed it with her in a filmed version in New York.
Most recently, she has performed it for Batsheva with her friend Shamel Pitts.
Smith hopes she will continue performing the critically acclaimed and singularly effective work for the rest of her life.
Arrowed is a combination of movement and language. It’s about movement and where it comes from... Small gestures we make are just as large as doing a big jump. The largest dance is a conversation between two people.”
She knows that people see the work as a kind of autobiography, and while it is that, she hopes it is something more as well.
“There is a fine line between being honest and being self-indulgent,” Smith explained. “Arrowed is not just about my life. I’m trying to go into those things that are so similar to everyone; I’m not trying to tell my life story or to reminisce.”
When the master ballet choreographer George Balanchine was asked about his personal life, he would reply, “It’s all in the programs,” and it was – the ballerinas who were the loves of his life were the ones that inspired some of his best new works. Something similar could be said of Smith; it’s no secret in the dance world that she was involved with Naharin for years. She won’t comment on their relationship, but many who have seen Arrowed find echoes of their romance in the intimate and adversarial dance it portrays.
A couple of years ago, Smith left Batsheva for Sharon Eyal’s company. She danced for Eyal for a few months, traveling with the company to Sweden, but then returned to Tel Aviv and Batsheva. In any case, Smith and Naharin’s professional relationship continues.
Smith is a passionate advocate for Naharin’s work and the Gaga dance technique he created – a dance vocabulary that corresponds movements with specific words – which she now teaches.
Although Smith feels it is time for her to move on, she will never leave Batsheva and Gaga behind.
“I want Gaga to be a part of my life, always. I always feel each performance is my last performance... I want to live my life like that.”
While residing in Tel Aviv, she became part of the art scene beyond the dance world. With guitarist Uzi Ramirez, she wrote and performed several songs; she is also working on writing the text for a book of photos by Alex Apt. The photos are “a study on effort – the effort of crying, pleasure, of promise.”
Although Smith hasn’t made long-term plans, this winter she will be teaching dance at Stanford and choreographing a new piece.
Eytan Fox, the celebrated Israeli movie director known for Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water and Cupcakes, became an admirer of her work over the years, and is currently developing a feature film starring Smith. She will play a character based on herself who gets involved with a working-class Israeli man, introducing him to the world of dance and the arts. Fox is at work on the screenplay, and Smith is eager to collaborate with him; she will return to shoot the film.
“I’m excited about doing good work with good people,” she said, referring to the movie – but could just as easily be talking about the next chapter in her creative life.