New Film Shows Hard Journey to the Joyce for Tribeca's Gibney Dance

Gibney dancers rehearse in the company's Tribeca studio. Photo: Gibney Dance Company

May. 14, 2024

Shake These Bones” is a new documentary that follows the trials and triumphs of Tribeca-based Gibney Dance Company as the artists prepare, in the face of COVID lockdowns, for the company’s world premiere program at the Joyce Theater. The film, produced by Amy Sewell and Stephanie Troise Walter, and directed by Olga Lvoff, opens the Big Apple Film Festival on May 20. 

This is the fourth film for Sewell, a longtime Tribeca resident who produced and wrote the well-received 2005 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” featuring 5th graders at Tribecas PS 150. Through the producers’ involvement with Reel Works, a film mentoring program for underserved New York City youth (Walter is the co-founder and executive director of The Studio at Reel Works), “Shake These Bones” offered the student filmmakers real-life experience. And the shoestring production gained much-needed help from the young crew, in addition to three Reel Works graduates who played key roles in making the film. A mission of Gibney Dance, led by founder and artistic director Gina Gibney, is to have a company of dancers who contribute their talents and time to social causes.

The film will be screened Monday, May 20, at 5:30 p.m. at Look Dine-In Cinemas, 657 W. 57th St. Go here for tickets.

Below is an interview, edited for length, with Amy Sewell.

You’ve come full circle in Tribeca, having included PS 150 in “Mad Hot Ballroom,” and this one about Gibney Dance, on Chambers Street, 20 years later. 

The first one was two blocks away to the east of my apartment, and this one was two blocks to the west. It shows that sometimes there are stories to be told that are right under our noses.

And both about dance.

I’m just a facilitator. I don’t dance. I’ve never danced. I don’t know why I’m being called to make dance movies but if there are doc gods out there, they choose me and they need to stop now.

You’ve now produced four movies. Is there a common thread?

They open a small window into a world that people don't see. The tagline we picked for “Mad Hot Ballroom” was “Ordinary Kids, An Extraordinary Journey,” and I think that’s what all of them are. A window into an extraordinary slice of life. 

Two weeks after you started the film, COVID-19 closed down the city. What was that like?

We had been planning to show Gibney’s joyous ascent to a performance at the Joyce Theater. Filming of the rehearsals started in February of 2020, after our amazing executive producer, Bethany Menzies, stepped up with major funding in under a month, and then all of a sudden, on March 13, COVID hits. “Mad Hot Ballroom” was 250 hours worth of footage, which we edited down to 104 minutes. This had to have been more because we were lost under the really dark, heavy cloud of COVID, and losing our navigation. Like what are we doing? Where are we going? Whats this movie about? In the end, I think it added to the film because COVID provided a perfect backdrop to show that dance is essential.

And you had other challenges.

Yes. Olga, the director, got pregnant in the middle of it and had a baby. I had a heart operation in 2021 while we were still filming. And we ran out of money. Stephanie [Walter, the other producer] and I had to step in and kind of keep it going, but we would continue to consult with Olga, the director. Sometimes we filmed with Daniel [Kharlak], the cinematographer. And then during editing, it was a group process. We were lucky to have Gerson Legend, who had edited alongside Olga.

What kept all of you going?

At some point the arts just become an addiction What happens is you chomp onto something beautiful and you kind of can't let it go.

One of the powerful aspects of the movie is the way it shows how the dancers kept moving during the lockdown—in their apartment and even outdoors. 

Unlike the rest of us during COVID, who could put on pounds and not worry, dancers needed to move around and stay in shape. So we showed them dancing wherever they could—and dance they did! I’m going to cry at the premiere when I relive the scene that shows them coming back into the studio after they haven’t seen each other for so long. They’ve all been living separate lives and at one point Kevin Pajarillaga, one of the dancers, picks up another dancer, Marla Phelan, and affectionately throws her over his shoulders, and you know the joy of reuniting is real. 

Olga Lvoff, the director, is from Russia, and Daniel, the cinematographer, is from Ukraine. Did that make a difference in the look of the film?

There’s something about those Eastern Europeans with dance—they get it. Like they hold a shot long enough or they’re patient enough. Daniel’s approach to filmmaking showed early at Reel Works where he was a student. He made lovely, rich textured films.

How do you hope people will feel when they watch this movie?

When I watch it, or even the trailer, I feel like the world falls away, problems fall away and I want other people to feel that way too. There’s a lot of guilt around making art when there are so many other things in the world going on. But in the end, hopefully, you can get to a place where you transcend time and place, and you feel at peace.