I met the dancer Bobbi Jene Smith at the Batsheva Intensive in New York City last year. Bobbi is a beautiful force, an intensely gorgeous, honest, and strong mover. And on top of all this, she’s intelligent and insightful. The Batsheva repertoire she taught at the intensive, as well as her words, will not leave me, and her presence and influence continue to circulate.
Months after attending the intensive, I saw that Bobbi and Ceila Rowlson Hall had teamed up to film a condensed version of Bobbi’s dance piece, Arrowed. Created in 2010, Arrowed is a piece that Bobbi is committed to performing her entire life. She discusses this piece and more in our interview below.
Can you discuss Arrowed? What is it and how did you first start making it?
I started to work on Arrowed the summer of 2010 and I will continue to work on it till the day I die. It is a dance created in interview form between two people. Each time I revisit Arrowed, the context changes and new questions and colors appear. I grow with it and it grows with me. I feel like a bought a home. I live there (in Arrowed).
How has it changed throughout the course of making it? What is the piece’s evolution?
Everything is changing/nothing is changing. It’s aging with me and I’m aging with it. It is a mirror. It is a prayer. It is a wish. Each time I meet it, different things are important. But one thing stays the same. The fireworks. The endless fireworks (Man: What is your obsession with fireworks? Woman: They feel like celebrations and disasters at the same time). Everything else can change but that remains the same.
I am curious to see how the way Arrowed is documented changes the actual performance of the piece. For instance, working with Celia Rowlson-Hall on the short film version was a big learning curve. It was a stepping stone to move on from the weight/narrative of that version and onto the next weight: carry more, contain more, share more.
Have you noticed any changes in yourself from making this piece?
I see dance in everything. Arrowed has taught me that. It has connected me to my effort and the joy I feel in it. In 2010 I thought Arrowed was going to be the only piece I would ever make. That has changed. Sometimes we make rules to break them. It’s a conversation.
How did using film alter the piece?
Celia inspired new things to take shape in Arrowed. It was interesting to see it through her eyes, timing, and sensitivity. For me, this version was a poem for the leaving. How we arrive at decisions and the echo of the weight of those decisions (sometimes our art shows us the next decision we are going to make).
What role did costumes, lighting, etc. play for you in the video? Is it something you consider after making a piece or during?
I’ve never really been a big costume or clothes person. I’d rather perform naked all the time. But I do love seeing women in dresses and I’ll always be a sucker for a man in Levis and a white tee shirt. I attempt for the look to be timeless but I know that’s impossible. It’s now and it’s now.
What are the differences between what you’re doing with Arrowed and traditional dances/training for you?
I try to use the same tools I’ve received from Gaga (the movement language of Ohad Naharin) in all the work I do. The ideas of letting go, listening to the echo, finding pleasure in effort, connecting to your weakness, far away engines, the traveling movement underneath the skin, not taking myself too seriously, giving in to give out. These principles carry me emotionally and physically all the time in my creative process, in my performance, in my daily training and while I’m doing the dishes.
I read an interview that stated, “For Smith, Arrowed marks a big step towards one of her many goals, to eradicate the gap between her life on and off stage.” Can you discuss these differences? Why are you trying to eradicate the gap?
Withholding does not create mystery for me. People are very mysterious when they tell the truth. Trying to erase that gap between off and on stage is a state of mind that helps me to bring everything to the table or to realize that everything is already there. We are all containers. My memories are in my skin whether I want them to be or not. I carry them with me and I dance with them. They reference inside of me and I craft them and form them and ride on them. There is so much movement all the time, everywhere. I don’t need to “warm-up” to move my arms wild; a minute ago I was just trying to catch the bus!!
I want to be a magnifying glass. I want to be a mountain. I want to be a long dirt road.
In another interview you stated, “I think I will continue with this piece until I am old and that in some way it will document my death.” I often sense my death when I make art, especially with the small movement films I’ve been making. Do you sense this too?
Yes, I sense it too.
In the most recent video you made with Celia, your words presented via audio had a very intense impact on me; when did you write them? Why did you choose to add them? Have words always been important to you?
I wrote the words in 2010, but they are constantly in edit mode. The order changes. The memory changes. I write a lot. I feel like I also write when I dance. I’ve always heard words when I move.
What is your art-making process?
I like to go digging. I put myself in the space. I wait. I hear or sense something coming. Usually it’s already there but I can’t see it. Sometimes I can see a light but I don’t know how to get there, so I just keep digging, watch things, people, my brave friends, or ideas pass by until I can start to see clearly. All the people that I am inspired by are with me when I’m creating but then there comes a moment when you are completely alone. I am in huge fear of that moment but I also crave it and look for it. I know that in order for my work to become universal, I need to dig as much as I can.
What has been your experience as an art maker in the United States vs. abroad? Is there a distinction?
I feel very fortunate to have been away from home for so long. I was able to see things thru a different lens. Someone took my glasses off. I didn’t go looking for them. I wanted to see everything. And as difficult as it was, I know that being in a constant state of longing creates a large amount of space for creativity. An abstract sensation we all know: missing. The empty space that we all continually try to fill in or feel absent in. I think everyone should be “out to sea” for a while.
There’s a perception that the life of an artist is difficult; has this been your experience?
I am doing what I love. I feel very lucky. I am inspired by the endless effort collectively and individualy. It’s a goal of mine to reveal the pleasure and persuasiveness of that effort, decoupling it from the concept of burden and attempt to share how deeply connected effort is to our most basic desires. DESIRES. EFFORT. FOREVER!
Who are other artists that inspire you?
My brother Jason Smith, Or Schraiber, John Cassavettes, Know Hope, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Jason Molina, Matan Daskal, Elvira Lind, Ohad Naharin, Joni Mitchell, Sharon Eyal, Anne Carson, and a dictionary of geological terms.
Do you have any advice for artists/dancers?
Be honest, be brave, be yourself. What you love will set you free.
Photos courtesy of Bobbi Jene Smith. Featured image taken from Ohad Naharin’s “Sadeh21,” Batsheva Dance Company (2014).