Dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey was a landmark figure with works like his signature masterpiece, Revelations.
The 1960’s dance used spiritual, gospel and blues music behind his choreography to tell the story of the Black American experience performed by his diverse Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which toured both the U.S. and the world, bringing Black culture where it hadn't been seen before.
He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, and posthumously, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Ailey died of AIDS complications in 1989.
The new documentary “Ailey,” out in theaters, tells the fuller story of the renowned dancer’s work and life: He never knew his father. His early memories were of cotton fields with his mother.
“I wanted to find a way to allow us to experience his journey of becoming — as an artist, as a dancer — and to find a way to place us in his point of view,” director Jamila Wignot says.
She pulled in black and white footage not just of the early Alvin Ailey Theater but also of his life in the South. There hasn’t been a documentary of this kind that gets deep into who the choreographer really was and his massive impact on dance.
“Why him now? Why him always!” Wignot says. “I don't think there's ever a time where his vision and his mission and his story [aren’t] relevant.”
Early in his career, his dance troupe toured in one bus with all the staging equipment stored under the performers’ feet. During life on the road, they were unsure how they'd be received in segregated parts of the country.
At one venue, there were 24 people. And then the next night, a line curved around the block. In France, people refused to leave. The troupe ended up making 80 curtain calls.
Before becoming a permanent part of Ailey’s company, dancer Judith Jamison was often invited to be in various ballets as a Black performer but was treated as a guest artist.
Ailey changed that for her.
Now, Jamison — Ailey’s best-known dancer — is the artistic director emerita of Ailey's company. He fiercely protected his performers, she recalls, and was the “caretaker of our spirit.”
On Ailey’s choreography, such as the scene when he directs a dancer to feel anger during Masekela Langage, a performance that drew parallels between apartheid South Africa and violence in 1960’s Chicago
Judith Jamison: “The characters in a Masekela Langage took a little bit of our personalities, our frustrations, our happinesses, all the things that Mr. Ailey knew about us because he loved, loved learning about people [and] what made you tick in your core. And he would pick up on those things when he was choreographing. So that woman, as you saw her, thrust herself on the floor and [banged] on the floor and he explained the heaviness of it.”
On infusing the dancers’ and Ailey’s own experiences into the choreography
Jamila Wignot: “That notion of dance is catharsis is something that Sarita Allen tells us in the film that by her likes, it felt to her and working with him that each of these characters maybe originated in a very personal place, that Mr. Ailey might be working something out. He then is asking that dancer to bring themselves into this role as well. And I think for me, as a person who came to Ailey just as a fan, I think that's the thing that I feel on the stage — this immediacy, this urgency, the sense of real life that takes place. And I think you see that in this marriage between Mr. Ailey's maybe original ideas, but then so much of what each of his glorious dancers are infusing into those roles.”
Jamison: “That was what was so beautiful about working with Mr. Ailey. And that's why the rehearsal part of your learning a dance is so intimate and so sensitive and so spiritual that I think it's a very sacred place. You're sharing these things without interference.”
On how dancers grasp the initial choreography
Jamison: “Oh, my goodness. It's like fencing almost — not that violent but with finesse, let's put it that way. And you are so open to receiving on either end. So it's like a ‘dance’ that you're doing and somebody is leading, somebody is following. But Mr. Ailey was always leading and you would just succumb to his genius as far as movement is concerned. And then as you move, you would know if you are on the same page, let's put it that way.”
On Ailey reflecting on Black American life and defying how others wanted to put his art into a box
Wignot: “I think the thing that I really related to was the sense that it's not that we don't want to be categorized as Black people, it's that the meaning that white society then ascribes to that, the box that then white supremacy puts you in that tells you, well, then these are the places that you can exist. I think for Mr. Ailey, he should have access to everything. He should be able to choreograph to anything. He should be able to use whatever music he wants to use. He's an artist. The whole world should be open to him.
"And there's a way in which it's like, oh, but we have other people to choreograph to classical music, to avant-garde music. So what we need from you is to do this one thing for us. And I think what he resented was the limits of that. And then, yes, very much this tokenization that happens. And I think at his time, I would argue, Ms. Jamison, even in your day, there is this feeling of there can only be one.”
Jamison: “He never really made us feel that we couldn't do anything we wanted to do when we got on stage. We were there to be excellent in whatever we were doing. And he gave us such a variety of things to do that it was called dance. You know, it was just called dance, concert dance. And you got up there and burnt up the stage and didn't leave anything for anybody else who was coming in after you to dance on because you had already done it all. To this day, it's still the same way. So he left the door wide [open]. There were no limitations.”
This segment aired on July 29, 2021.