“I want to get to that place where I have no strength to hide anything,” the dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith says in the 2017 documentary Bobbi Jene. That place, it turns out, may be an artists’ retreat in southern Vermont, where Smith has spent the last three summers—and, more recently, two weeks with nine other collaborators, honing the material that would eventually become her new multidisciplinary work Lost Mountain, premiering Thursday at La MaMa.
Lost Mountain is the culmination of a logical, if not altogether intentional, trajectory since Smith departed Batsheva Dance Company in 2014, after a decade in Tel Aviv, to pursue solo work. Her solo debut, A Study on Effort, exposed the tensions between the physical and emotional self, while subsequent works like Harrowing and With Care examined interpersonal relationships. (Smith frequently partners with her husband, Or Schraiber, also a former Batsheva dancer.) With Lost Mountain, Smith turns her gaze farther outward, to geology, the collisions between tectonic plates and the empty air between mountain peaks. Rather than compromising human connection, it operates as a metaphor, “asking questions of what is lost, what is it to be lost, what is the search, what is the aim,” Smith explained.
Each small arc within the show examines loss and absence from a different angle, interpreted differently by each artist: Violinist Keir Gogwilt and cellist Coleman Itzkoff playing just two parts of a Bach quartet, for example, or singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan singing of fickle romance. Gogwilt, Itzkoff, and Avidan also largely share soundtracking duties, both official and unofficial: During one lull in a recent rehearsal, Gogwilt began plunking out the Game of Thrones theme on the piano; when he drifted off, Itzkoff picked it up on the cello. Soon, other cast members were humming along, too.
La MaMa, the renowned experimental theater club that’s also hosted an Opening Ceremony show, among other things, first approached Smith in October of last year. But it wasn’t until last month that all 10 artists arrived at Certain Bird, dancer and choreographer Marta Miller’s “bucolic sanctuary” in southern Vermont, where they assembled Lost Mountain. It was the “scariest” and the “most unknown” part of the process, Smith said. “It feels like maybe we won’t get there.” Their first day there, it snowed. Then, it rained. Their studio space was a barn, no heat: “We all just bundled up and kept going,” Smith told me at rehearsal two weeks later. By the end of the residency, they had a show.
Lost Mountain has the peaks and valleys of a mountain range: It whispers in, little pockets of activity flurrying across the stage, before bursting into several crescendos and a final, furious climax before sloping back off again. For Smith, this remains a starting point: “The beginning of performing a piece is just the beginning of another process,” she said.
Though she’s a star in the dance world, wider audiences might not actually know they know her: Smith choreographed the climactic dance sequence at the end of Annihilation in which Natalie Portman duets with a silver-suited Sonoya Mizuno. Early in the production, when director Alex Garland mentioned he wanted to conclude the film with contemporary dance, Oscar Isaac), who plays Natalie Portman’s husband in the film, knew exactly who to recruit. (Isaac and Smith attended Juilliard at the same time; Elvira Lind, who directed Bobbi Jene, is also married to the actor.) The scene “was already written like a dance,” Smith said. “I could immediately see the dance of it.”
Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina premiered the year after Bobbi Jene won) the best documentary feature award award at the Tribeca Film Festival, but Smith tries not to think too hard about the wider exposure both projects have brought her work. “More work is all I want, and how it’s received is not up to me,” she told me, her voice retreating a bit. Still, it couldn’t help but affect her future projects. For Lost Mountain, she wondered, “How could I edit it like a film?” she said. “How could I see certain scenes in a more cinematic way?” Working with nine other artists also presented an exercise in stepping aside, allowing her collaborators’ voices to surface; on a film set, she couldn’t help but surrender a certain measure of control to the director, the cinematographer, the performers. “You can kind of map back the impulses to where they might have come from,” she said.
Working with nine other artists, in fact, might have necessitated some stepping aside. “I chose people that really inspire me and are really daring artists, and with that comes a lot of personality and at any given moment, there are tons of contradictions in the room,” Smith said. “But I actually love them.”