World premieres are special moments in dance.
And previews — where new choreography is danced for an audience while it’s still in a work in progress, before the world premiere — are both special and personal, like seeing a band before it becomes famous.
If there are mistakes or elements that don’t make it into the final work, that’s all the more interesting.
Bobbi Jene Smith and Maxine Doyle’s dance in progress Deo will get its first preview Friday night at the Annenberg Center, when the Martha Graham Dance Company opens its EVE Project program of work by female choreographers.
Smith, 35, is likely to have a local fan base attending from University of the Arts, where she teaches and choreographs for dance students as a visiting artist. She lives in New York, where she also teaches at Juilliard and New York University.
In dance circles, Smith is a big-name performer, as well. She made the November cover of Dance Magazine, which called her “an exceptional dancer ... admired for her conviction, clarity, and voraciousness.”
Connecting to create the new piece hasn’t been easy. Smith has been in Denmark this winter creating a work for Corpus, a small company within the Royal Danish Ballet. Doyle lives and works in London.
The two came together in New York with the Martha Graham dancers for three weeks in November and December to make Deo, which is loosely based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
“We kind of used those themes of separation and motherhood and longing and grief and power to distill those kinds of emotions and see what happens from there," said Smith, who will return to Philadelphia this weekend for the preview. "It is in no way the retelling of the myth. It’s almost the myth as a jumping-off point.”
With her trademark long, brown hair, Smith is well-known in the modern dance community — and also gaining traction beyond it.
A 2017 documentary Bobbi Jene, traced her move after 10 years in Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to reinvent herself as a choreographer in the United States. That film won best documentary feature, cinematography, and editing at the Tribeca Film Festival and is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Following the success of Bobbi Jene, Smith has worked on several other films, as a choreographer and actress. She appears in and was the choreographer for the upcoming Aviva, directed by Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans). One scene of the experimental dance movie features many of Smith’s UArts students.
Dance is the second athletic endeavor in Smith’s life. She grew up in Iowa as a “pretty hard-core competitive” gymnast who reached the level just below elite.
“I fell in love with dance, but my parents didn’t want me to quit [gymnastics],” Smith said, “and I somehow bribed them into letting me audition for summer schools. And then I never went back to gymnastics."
Instead, she did two years of high school in Canada, while studying at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, the closest world-class conservatory to her Midwest home, although still a 10-hour drive.
“Then I got kicked out," she said, because she just wasn’t destined to be a classical ballerina. She went south to study contemporary dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts and finish high school.
Smith attended Juilliard for college, and as a freshman, was introduced to choreographer Ohad Nahrin’s Gaga “movement language” when Batsheva Dance Company performed at Lincoln Center.
“I had never seen women allowed to dance like that,” Smith said, “and I said, ‘I have to be able to dance like that.’
“They were like animals. They were wild, they were fearless. They had boobs and butts and they were powerhouses and yet still feminine and still delicate and emotional. Like they had contradictions in them, which I wanted to be able to feel.”
Her chance came in her junior year, when the Juilliard dancers performed Naharin’s Tabula Rasa, and the choreographer invited Smith to join Batsheva in Israel.
Her family balked: “They wanted me to finish school, rightly so, and I was so determined that of course I didn’t give them a choice,” Smith said.
“But I think my colleagues really understood. They saw how much I was in love with the company and there was really no way to say no.”
Smith went on to marry Israeli dancer Or Meir Schraiber. The two pursued a long-distance relationship for a year when she moved to the United States while he danced one last season with Batsheva.
They’re now together in New York, and he’ll be joining her in Copenhagen to assist with her project there.
Martha Graham audiences at the Annenberg can expect to see in Deo a “balance between delicacy and power, or very detailed and very simple at the same time," Smith said. “Something might not make sense narratively, but viscerally it could.
“I would love for people to see my work and understand it, but not understand why they understand it.”
EVE Project: Martha Graham Dance Company