It’s time the world got to know the trailblazing artist behind the choreography that brought Black experiences to life. Dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, the most influential and celebrated Black choreographer of the 20th Century, is getting his flowers in Ailey – a new documentary about his life and legacy that was always in search of the truth through movement.
The film focuses on the icon’s captivating choreography that encapsulated the grace, strength and beauty of Black life, as well as struggles and triumphs of a man whose work was larger than life. To this day, Ailey’s name lives on through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and director Jamila Wignot ensures that his story will continue to stay alive in a visual portrait of his life for her latest filmmaking project.
Just ahead of the film’s nationwide debut, Shadow and Act spoke to Wignot about the makings of Ailey, what inspired her to direct a film commemorating his life inside and outside of dance, and how this experience impacted her understanding of the man who revolutionized modern dance.
“I discovered the company in college and remained a fan,” she says of her first introduction to Ailey. “[The Black student group] went to a theater in Boston and I didn’t know anything about modern dance, so I just took my seat and really had my mind blown. I think that’s anybody on the planet who sees the Ailey company because there’s just something on the best nights… this visceral, beautiful [energy] that comes off that stage that really spoke to me. In part because it was these kinds of stories of ordinary, every day [Black] folk who are now the center of the drama onstage, and I loved that.”
Her earliest memory of the pioneer came full circle years later after she was approached to lead the Ailey documentary by the heads of Insignia Films, Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak, who were in search of a director to attach to the film. “The opportunity with this film that found me was a totally serendipitous, amazing experience. It really is both the privilege and pleasure of being able to spend time getting to know the man and the artist at the center of the company I love. [I] also just think it was really important for me and my artistic practice. There are things that I was able to experiment with in terms of visual and immersive storytelling in this that just felt like a real kind of move forward. I’m grateful too, that he had a story that allowed for that.”
Wignot – an award-winning documentary filmmaker – first premiered Ailey at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is now gearing up for a wide theatrical release for her feature-length film. Starting out in archival film as a researcher gave the director her career start and prepared her to helm an optical manifestation of Ailey’s masterful teachings and personal journey as a working-class, gay, Black man making strides in a society that aimed to exclude him.
As told through Ailey’s own words, the documentary leans on the archival footage and interviews of those closely connected to the dance legend for a resonant biography that captures the essence of who he truly was. According to Wignot, the audio recordings of Ailey – provided by his dance company from the last year of his life – provided the best foundation for the documentary to stand on. “Those tapes were interviews where he spoke, to me,” Wignot says, “as if he was engaged in the exercise of thinking like, well if I’m telling my story then what are the things that matter to me that are most salient?”
“That became a kind of foundational pillar [for the film],” she continued. “I think those interviews were very revealing in terms of the abandonment of his father, his sexual awakening, this kind of call to dance and the discovery of [it] at an early age and then the transformative moment of encountering Katherine Dunham. There was a real sense in those tapes of Mr. Ailey’s own story of becoming and I think that’s what we were trying to [capture]. You may know him, you may know his name, but this is kind of what it took in understanding his deep, deep commitment to the endeavor [of dance] in what he was willing to sacrifice so much for it.”
Similar to how Ailey’s dances utilized elements of storytelling, Ailey adopts the same method to highlight the choreographer’s narrative to accurately reflect the kind of visionary he was. “It’s something that I love about Mr. Ailey’s works in particular and I think the fact that he is somebody who is interested in a narrative there [has to be] an emotional arc,” Wignot shares. “If you make a film about an artist, the hope is that it can actually live up to the artistry that it’s showcasing. We felt like we wanted the film, emotionally, to have the same kind of experience like a saga that is what you feel in [Ailey’s 16-minute] piece of Cry but also 30 minutes of Revelations. He takes you on a real journey and we certainly wanted the film to reflect that.”
Along with Ailey’s voice, the documentary also features interviews and appearances from some of his closest collaborators – including Judith Jamison, George Faison, Bill T. Jones and many more. Like many documentaries, the courtship phase was something Wignot invested in to get these individuals on board with the project, but she describes it as a riveting and enlightening experience where she was “in awe” of those she spoke with.
When asked to sum up the most fulfilling part of filming the documentary, Wignot simply said “the whole thing has been a reward.” “To be able to have the time, space, resources and support from my team to try and come up with the best possible way of bringing this story to a screen, that just felt like such a gift,” she continued. “It was really all of us working together, endeavoring to make the best possible work.”
“[This experience] is so resonant with what Mr. Ailey said. For me, the joy is so much so in the process and just being able to work each day to shine and polish something. The other side of it is you hope that the film will have an audience [because] we don’t make these to just sit with ourselves. This was the dream for us to be able premiere at Sundance and we really wanted a broad theatrical release because we just feel like [Ailey] is such an incredible, accessible, human being that people need to know about.”
Ailey is in New York City in select theaters now and everywhere August 6.