It’s a case of life imitating art. In the new film Mari, Bobbi Jene Smith plays a dancer who discovers she’s pregnant just as she is choreographing her first big show. After the shoot, Smith became pregnant herself, and now must face some of the same challenges to her character.
When I Skype the dancer in her New York apartment, she looks suitably glowing in the laptop’s wan light. “I don’t feel like I’m glowing!” she says. “I’m pretty tired. I can tell my body’s telling me: slow down.”
Smith has been dancing almost every day since childhood. She left home in Iowa for ballet boarding school in Canada at 11, studied at New York’s Juilliard and spent a decade with the company Batsheva in Israel, where she gained a reputation as a fearless performer of full-bodied commitment. She relocated to New York in 2014 (as chronicled in the award-winning documentary Bobbi Jene) and has tirelessly worked to build her own career as a choreographer. To suddenly stop dancing can be a shock to the body, the psyche and a dancer’s sense of identity, but also their career trajectory – especially in New York’s very competitive, very precarious dance world.
“I’ve been working towards this point, and now to take some time off, it’s scary,” says Smith. “It is a fast pace and people forget easily.” So if you take too much time out you’ll lose momentum, your profile? “I don’t know if it’s true, but it feels like that,” she says. “But if it sets me back a bit, I’ll just keep going.”
Mari is the meditative debut feature from British writer/director Georgia Parris. Smith’s character Charlotte contemplates the tensions between motherhood, creative ambition and family responsibilities as her grandmother lies dying in hospital. The dance in the film paints moods and inner lives, as well as plot, and is choreographed by Punchdrunk associate director Maxine Doyle.
Charlotte’s pregnancy is the unexpected result of a fling with a younger dancer. For Smith, it was rather more planned. She is married to fellow dancer Or Meir Schraiber, whom she met at Batsheva. “In Charlotte’s case the pregnancy came as a shock, and for me it was a very beautiful realisation,” says Smith.
Was the physical reality of pregnancy anything like she’d imagined when she was acting the part? “It’s actually pretty similar, surprisingly,” says Smith. “It’s like, oh, I’ve acted like I’ve felt this way and now I feel like that!” Dancers, more than the rest of us mortals, are in touch with their physical selves. “It’s scary and amazing,” says Smith of her changing body. “It’s a whole lesson in letting go.” She’s spent her life fine-tuning the control of her body, “and now I can’t control it!” she laughs. “It controls me. But also, I mean, I have another heart beating inside of me. It’s unreal, it’s magic.”
At six months pregnant, Smith is still dancing. She just premiered her biggest work to date, Lost Mountain, performing with a visible bump. “Her first performance!” Smith says of her daughter-to-be. She and Schraiber danced a “hopeful parents” duet. “I made sure not to do anything that would make the audience worry for me,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think ‘Who’s that irresponsible woman?’ The doctor says it’s OK to keep dancing but I’m taking it easy.”
It’s after the baby is born that the real challenge begins. As a freelance dancer in the US, Smith has no maternity entitlement. (In the UK, freelance workers can apply for state maternity allowance, up to £148.68 per week, for nine months.) Her husband is freelance too. What do you do? “You try to save up, and get back to work as fast as you can,” she says. “And be thankful for family and friends to help.”
When birth itself is so unpredictable, never mind life with a baby, and the job of a dancer so physically demanding, it’s impossible to know when “as fast as you can” will be. “Every birth is so different and I have no idea what to expect,” says Smith. “Some moms are back in the studio in two weeks and some people need a whole year. We have to figure that out together, my husband and I, how it’s going to work, but for sure it’s scary.”
Some choreographers take their children into the studio and on tour. Some dancers who have children move away from performing to teaching or other more steady careers. Smith has no doubt that she will return to dancing. “Every woman that I’ve seen come back from giving birth dances even better, with more heart and clarity,” she says. “So I’m not scared of that part.” Do you think it will change you as an artist? She smiles. “I hope it does.”
• Mari is in UK cinemas on 21 June.