Bobbi Jene, a new Scandinavian documentary, explores a couple of years in the life of an Iowa-born modern dancer who builds a career in Israel before confronting the work/life conflicts that hamstring so many women. Despite, or perhaps because of, her conventional Midwestern upbringing, she takes pleasure in being nude, and centers a major choreographic project around humping a 50-pound bag of sand.
Bobbi Jene Smith dropped out of Juilliard in 2005 to follow magnetic, 53-year-old phenom Ohad Naharin to Tel Aviv, becoming his lover and a member of his groundbreaking Batsheva Dance Company. Their affair soon ended but her career in his ensemble flourished. Danish director Elvira Lind, based in New York, picks up Smith's story nine years later, at the moment when she decides to leave the troupe, return to the States, and concentrate on her own creative work; the filmmaker shadows Bobbi Jene at every significant juncture. So she's shooting as the dancer divulges this plan to Naharin over lunch; he picks bits of salad from her plate.
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Lind is not afraid of silence, and long stretches of the 95-minute doc are strictly visual. Bobbi Jene's physical explorations involve extreme effort: hauling huge bags of bricks and the aforementioned sandbag, experimenting with an anchor, pressing with all her might against the concrete wall of a handball court.
Complicating the situation is, of course, the fact that she's happily in love with a fellow dancer 10 years her junior, and that her biological clock is ticking. She secures a temporary teaching job at Stanford and moves to San Francisco. Her sister-in-law, who lives in California, has a new baby boy. Her sweetheart, a 20-year-old Israeli named Or, has a boisterous family and no inhibitions; he's a charmer caught in her dilemma. Bobbi Jene moves to New York, as ambitious dance artists ultimately must, and tries to sustain their long-distance relationship, Skype encounters punctuated with occasional visits. Will Or let her support him while he finds a professional base in America?
Israel provides scenic backdrops for their fraught encounters: a beachfront, a desert, the light-filled studios of Batsheva. Our peripatetic heroine moves from one hot, sunny place to another, enabling the exposure of lots of well-muscled flesh in filmy summer dresses, even in New York City's outer boroughs. Indoors, the infatuated pair wear next to nothing.
If this very engaging, very handsome movie has a flaw, it's the endless attention to Bobbi Jene's emotions as she upends her life in search of creative fulfillment. The editing digests her hourlong dance, A Study on Effort, which we sample first at a rehearsal and then in a Jerusalem art museum, into four minutes. The camera, and the subjects, do not shy from exposing intimate encounters between the lovers and between the artist and her audience. Bobbi Jene gives you a taste of how a choreographer works but mainly registers how she feels. The mostly female production team stays rigorously focused on her effort to have it all, and on the price she pays.