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Moving Mountains

Batsheva Dance Company, under the artistic direction of Ohad Naharin, who led the troupe from 1990 until 2019 (he’s currently House Choreographer), has been an incubator for dancemaking talent. While the names Danielle Agami, Sharon Eyal, and Hofesh Shechter may come to mind, add to that list Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, who met while members of Batsheva, where they fell in love and subsequently married in 2018.

"Lost Mountain" with Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Carlos Cardona

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Born in Centerville, Iowa, Smith, a choreographer, dancer and actor, is an alumnus of the Juilliard School, North Carolina School of the Arts and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. She joined Batsheva in 2005 and stayed until 2014, when she decamped to New York. Israeli-born Schraiber, also a triple-threat who studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance before joining Batsheva in 2010, left the company in 2017. 

The pair, in addition to dancing together, became co-founding members of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) with some 19 others, in 2017, and have choreographed numerous original works. Included are five short dance films commissioned by Corpus, a contemporary subgroup of the Royal Danish Ballet. The duo has also been artist-in-residence at L.A. Dance Project since 2020, with their latest work, “The Missing Mountain,” produced in collaboration with LADP. The one-hour piece features six LADP dancers and has its world premiere at the group’s space September 14-16 and September 28-30. 

Individually, Smith, who was awarded the Harkness Promise Award and was the Martha Duffy Resident Artist at Baryshnikov Art Center in 2019, also worked in “Dido and Aeneas” and “Orphic Moment,” choreographed by Zack Winoker. In addition, the thirty-nine-year-old performed in “Sleep No More,” choreographed by Maxine Doyle, with the twosome going on to create “Deo,” for the Martha Graham Dance Company in 2019. 

Smith’s choreography and solo works have been presented by, among others, Batsheva, PS122, the Israel Museum and the Luminato Festival. And in a cinematic turn, Smith is the subject of the 2017 documentary, “Bobbi Jene.” Directed by Elvira Lind, the film snagged three awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, including best documentary feature. Schraiber, born in 1992, is also in the film that follows Smith’s departure from Batsheva as she began creating her own work, notably, the solo, “A Study on Effort.” 

In 2018, Smith starred in and, with Doyle, co-choreographed the feature-length film, “Mari.” Directed by Georgia Parris, the work featured a pregnant Smith coming to grips with motherhood, performance and family, with one scene including Smith and her husband, who was also in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning play, “The Band’s Visit,” dancing together. 

That same year Smith choreographed the climactic dance sequence at the end of Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman. Working in tandem again in 2020, Smith appeared in Boaz Yakin’s “Aviva,” (“Remember the Titans”), a movement-driven story that was an SXSW selection, with Schraiber dancing and contributing choreography. 

The couple’s most recent works include “Pit, which premiered at the Palais Garnier for Paris Opera Ballet in March, with “Broken Theater,” part of La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, seen in June. Produced by AMOC, the latter had a non-linear narrative loosely adapted from “The Taming of the Shrew,” and featured live music, with Smith and Schraiber part of the large cast. 

Fjord Review had the chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy, New York-based couple over Zoom between rehearsals for “The Missing Mountain.” Topics ranged from their latest work, their choreographic process and their foray into films, with the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Dea, intermittently popping into frame.

Bobbi Jene Smith. Photograph by Josh S. Rose for L.A. Dance Project

How did your two-year residency with LADP come about?

Bobbi Jene Smith: We met [LADP founder] Benjamin Millepied in Israel in 2013 or 2014. We stayed in touch and would always share different ideas. In 2019, when we were making “Lost Mountain,” he said we need to do something together. Then the pandemic hit, and in May, 2020, he and [LADP Executive Director] Lucinda Lent reached out and asked if we would come to L.A. 

That was pre-vaccine and everything shut down, so we thought, “Maybe we’ll make a residency, create a bubble; let’s make something out of this time.” We made “Solo at Dusk” in their parking lot. It was a drive-in dance performance, and that was the beginning of the relationship. 

How has the residency been going?

Smith: It’s been going great. It’s such a gift, honestly, as an artist, to be given time, especially time to invest with dancers and have the space to develop with them. That’s my favorite part – to go through different pieces with them, grow with them, take chances. It deepens the work [and] we get to know each other much better.

Let’s talk about “The Missing Mountain.” Is it a continuation of “The Lost Mountain,” and are you both dancing in it?

Smith: We’re thinking of it as part of a trilogy. We did a piece called, “Caldera,” created on Corpus with five dancers in 2019, as part of the Royal Danish Ballet. Then we made “Lost Mountain” in 2019 with 10 artists – seven dancers and three musicians that premiered at La MaMa. We did it four times and it felt like the beginning of something. 

When we came on this new commission we thought we’d like to revisit “Lost Mountain”—let it be a starting point. Then “Caldera” started to show up in the process. You follow where the piece likes to go, so this is chapter three of those two pieces. It felt like the right combination to build the piece on. 

Are you two dancing in it?

Or Schraiber: No. I always want to dance, but it’s not about us, it’s about the piece. The fact that we came with the idea of revisiting older pieces, we understood we needed to steer the wheel of the ship to another direction with different people. In the process, the people form the ligaments of the piece. 

It’s amazing to see how an idea that we would come with—a pre-conceived idea—that we will see it from one angle, and those people show us another angle. If we’re open enough, they show us different angles, and if we go that route, it creates an incredible number of concepts, themes, moments and sections.

Daphne Fernberger and Lorrin Brubaker in rehearsal for “The Missing Mountain” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Josh S. Rose for L.A. Dance Project

Speaking of concepts, what’s your process—music first, steps first, concept?

Schraiber: it varies; it depends what are the needs or the delivery due dates. I feel like it changes with each piece.

Smith: Sometimes it starts with movement; sometimes with a simple phrase. Or will come in with a phrase that he shares and I might see it to [certain] music. How will that person get to that place to do that movement? It feels pretty chaotic in the mix, in the soup—what is there, what’s connecting all of these things, what needs to go, what needs to be re-made. We’re asking a lot of questions. 

Also, I love when I’m dancing to be asked to problem solve in the piece. The dancers sometimes know more than we do. They can teach us what it feels like when they’re inside of the work. Sometimes we improvise a lot. Sometimes we give tasks. In this piece, there’s a lot more improv than in other pieces of ours. It feels very special. It makes the experience for the dancers to be fresh in the moment. 

What’s the music?

Smith: It’s an eclectic collection. It’ a composer we worked with before, a childhood friend of Or’s, Yonatan Daskal. He made the soundscore, and inside that score there’s a Tom Waits song, two Bach pieces and dear collaborators of our – violinist Keir Gogwilt and cellist Coleman Itzkoff. They’ve both been in “Lost Mountain” and in our most recent piece, “Broken Theater.” 

Mario Gonzalez, Shu Kinouchi and cast rehearse “The Missing Mountain” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Josh S. Rose for L.A. Dance Project

Bobbi Jene, you were a star at Batsheva, with the Rolling Stone describing you as “an extraordinary dancer . . . but she’s an even better choreographer.” How did dancing with Batsheva for 10 years impact you—as a dancer and a choreographer?

Smith: Batsheva changed my life. It was such a special 10 years of opening my mind up completely—what I thought dancing was, changing my idea of what I thought I danced. Being able to work with Ohad and being able to watch him work, I learned so much about him as a director, how he leads a room, how he takes care of his dancers, how he pushed us and supported us at the same time and created a safety net to give ourselves. 

Part of the magic of Batsheva—all the dancers and colleagues we came in contact with— were thinking about moving, thinking about dancing. I feel like that shaped how I want studio time to be. When we’ve gone back there in the last few years, this place has magic. 

People love to dance. They just want to feel more and more alive. I feel like that was such a gift to be around that daily—and trying to bring that into how we worked – learn from things that maybe we questioned – to guide me into different ways of physicality; being open to ways of thinking about how a piece should happen.

Schraiber: I was in Batsheva for seven years, and I feel the same as Bobbi. It shaped the way I think about dance, art, life in general. It’s funny because when I hear Bobbi describing this magical building, it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not—it’s actually real. Sometimes I would create while being there—the studios are so magical. And the human material—those artists that are there—are the highest caliber. I was feeling very lucky for those seven years.

Smith: Every year, dancers would create. You could make whatever you wanted to make. That was such a gift from the company, and from Ohad. I left Batsheva making 10 pieces. We’re instilling that into LADP, which is really exciting. It’s so essential for a group of artists—you have to give them an outlet. It will only create louder and more powerful and bright voices in the room to make Ohad’s vision—or whoever’s leading the ship. I find that very inspiring, and it’s something that has stuck with me.

You’ve both taught gaga, so Bobbi Jene, I read that when you took acting and voice lessons, you said that you found parallels between vocal training and gaga. How so?

There was a lot of talk of the pelvic floor and opening up and the breathing, just listening to the flow of what gaga does so magically. We worked with this woman, Dale, and it felt like it was similar principles in a different setting.

Schraiber: I moved here in 2017 to study at the Stella Adler acting school in New York. My English was not as strong, and I met this teacher. It was very mysterious to me, this whole voice and speech thing. We didn’t use a lot of voice in Batsheva, so it confused me; it was something unattainable for me. But slowly with practice in the voice and speech classes, I was connecting to the sensation of letting go.

The more you let go, the easier the voice and breath will come out, and you use them in a more efficient way. That, to me was really a revelation like Bobbi said. The connection—letting go to be more efficient—is something Ohad always says. That’s the main element.

LADP in A“Quartet for Five” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Photograph by Ayeric Guilluy-Eyrau

You two recently premiered “Pit,” your first work for Paris Opera Ballet, which featured 19 dancers. The New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas called it “a hot mess.” How do you respond to a review like that? Do you rework the piece, move on, or what?

Smith: Technically speaking, for Paris Opera Ballet, once you premiere a work, you can’t change anything. You can make small adjustments, but it’s difficult. I already have so many things I want to rework; for me, the piece is never done. I still dream about it. We should have done this thing, that thing. And now I have a new beginning. It’s one person’s opinion, and of course, that is valid. If we make work to only please . . .

Schraiber: I don’t know how to do that.

Smith: We have to stay true to what the piece calls for—what it feels like it’s honestly trying to do to serve the piece. The most important thing is that it creates reaction. For me, that creates a conversation. Whether you liked it or not, what did you feel? To question the motives of a piece on stage, that’s important. Even if it hurts, even if that reaction is painful, it’s part of it. 

We just have to be strong and fearless. Maybe in 10 years, people will love it. Maybe the next day. How many times have you seen a film, because of the day you were having, and the next day, you find there’s something there? 

Schraiber: For Bobbi and I—the two of us—the work is never done. The trajectory of how the piece grows from the first performance to the last – the 11th show in Paris was something. The dancers had it in their bones; their intentions completely changed. If we had filmed the first and last show, it would be two different films.

Smith: With Ohad, there was the pre-process of the piece, the process, and the performance. I feel like we’re always so clear as dancers, that just because we have a piece now, doesn’t mean it’s over. Ohad would say my choreography is boring. It’s the interpretation and all the people inside the piece that makes it. I felt this for our piece [for LADP], “Quartet for Five.” That had the most amount of performances. Working in the studio, to see the dancers, the choreography fell away, and you just saw the people. It was amazing. But that’s something only good old-fashioned time and repetition can get to. 

Schraiber: Nothing beats it.

“Fugue in Crimson” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Ascaf

Where do you see yourselves in the next five to ten years? Having your own company, perhaps?

Smith: I hope we will have our own company. I hope we will have a group of artists that we continue to dig deeper with and continue to make art together. For me, what I love the most is going to work every day; I love going to the studio every day. I would love to go to the studio and make work as we grow old together.

Yes, I can totally picture that! So, what advice do you have for aspiring dancers and choreographers?

Smith: To keep going, keep making work on days you don’t’ feel like making work. “Oh my god, do I really need to make another solo?” It sounds kitschy and cliché, and maybe it’s me, but everything becomes clearer when you do that.

Schraiber: Just keep making stuff. Keep dancing, it’s the only thing we’ve got.

Smith: Same here. Keep fighting for what you love, and work hard for what you love. I really don’t know what it’s like to make work today as a young person. I can’t imagine what that feels like—to have immediate feedback of what’s liked and not liked. 

I really hope that people have the support to take chances. Making work isn’t about being good or bad. It’s about making work and speaking and sharing. I think it’s so important that we need more voices—all sorts of voices—and everyone has an angle to share something.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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