In general, I think people watch documentaries in order to learn something. A major flaw of the new documentary Bobbi Jene is that it assumes a prior knowledge of modern dance and the subject of the film,  dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith.

I believe that it is safe to say that names like Baryshnikov, Nureyev and Fonteyn are familiar even to people who don’t follow dance, and that Bobbi Jene Smith isn’t quite a household name (though it may be one day). Smith strikes me as talented and spirited, but there are many talented and spirited dancers. One is left wondering exactly what justified a ninety minute documentary on the dancer. I am not doubting that the reasons are there, it’s just that they are not so self-evident in the documentary.

The film opens with Smith’s decision to leave Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company (featured in another documentary earlier this year – Mr. Gaga). Originally from Iowa, Smith left Juilliard at the age of 21 to join Batsheva and danced with the company for nine years. Smith was apparently a prominent member of the troupe although as shown in the film the reasons are not quite clear.

The documentary then follows Smith back to the US where she attempts to re-establish her career. There are sequences of Bobbi Jene doing various dance exercises, including forcing herself against a cement slab in a park. The meaning of this sequence may be self-evident to dancers, everyone else may be left in the dark. The film suffers from the lack of a narrator to provide context.

There are extensive episodes of Smith interacting with her family (including having a meal with them) and dealing with a long distance relationship with her Israeli boyfriend who for the most part has decided to remain in Israel. I didn’t find these scenes all that interesting. Lots of people have meals with their families and many are familiar with the ups and downs of long distance relationships. In the absence of any information as to why Smith’s career is so significant, the footage isn’t all that compelling.

Probably the most distinctive element of the film is an extended solo dance scene which Smith created and which depending on your point of view is either artistic, daring, or too self-revealing – or perhaps a combination of all three. Fans of modern dance may find Bobbi Jene interesting,  the reactions of others will probably be more unpredictable and problematic.

Directed by Elvira Lind, Bobbi Jene opened September 22 in New York and premiers October 6 in Los Angeles.

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