The first time Jamila Wignot saw a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the dances. Now, with a documentary she’s directed, she hopes to introduce others to the beauty of the company’s work and of its founder.
Her film, titled simply Ailey, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens Friday in theaters. It provides an immersive portrait of Alvin Ailey, a gay Black man who knew poverty, racism, and homophobia but also drew on his rich culture to become one of the 20th century’s most important choreographers. He died in 1989, but his company has endured and continues to commission new work; Wignot’s film intersperses Ailey’s biography with footage of dancers rehearsing a new piece for the group’s 60th anniversary in 2018.
Wignot encountered the dance group’s work in college, when she obtained a ticket for a performance through the Black student union at her school. The program concluded with Revelations, one of Ailey’s most acclaimed pieces, and it made a great impression on her. Years later, having built a résumé that includes directing two episodes of the PBS series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, she was approached by Insignia Films about helming a documentary on Ailey.
“I was familiar with the dances and the company — I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Ailey’s biography,” she tells The Advocate. She was soon to become intimately familiar with his life.
The film draws on archival footage, interviews with members of Ailey’s company and others who knew him, and, importantly, audio recordings he made while preparing an autobiography with collaborator A. Peter Bailey. It was important to hear his voice in those recordings, Wignot says; there’s no filter in the form of an interviewer, and Ailey’s “poetic energy” is palpable in his remembrances.
Ailey was born in a small town in Texas in 1931, deep in the Jim Crow era of segregation and oppression of Black Americans. When he was just 4, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles; his father was mostly absent from his life. Ailey and his mother still knew struggle, but their lives were enhanced by a culture that offered a wealth of love and caring, and recognized the value of music and community celebrations. Wignot uses footage of ordinary Black life from this time period to approximate the type of experience Ailey had.
In the 1950s he moved to New York City to pursue his dance career, and he founded his company there in 1958. In 1960 came the premiere of Revelations, a set of dances performed to Black religious music, often considered Ailey’s masterpiece. But he would create many more pieces, and his company also performed dances by other choreographers.
Ailey dancers, courtesy of Neon
Ailey was a deeply private and sometimes troubled man, totally dedicated to his art, Wignot says. “It’s important to think about the sacrifices he had to make to build this enterprise. … There’s a kind of giving over of himself entirely,” she says. But his work also reflected beauty and joy, she adds, and he cleared a path for other Black artists.
He was out as a gay man to his friends and his colleagues in the dance world but was closeted publicly. He died of AIDS-related complications at age 58, but his obituaries cited a rare blood disorder as the cause of death.
“It’s devastating to think about when he died and all the possibilities that would have been open to him had he lived even 10 years more,” Wignot says.
Ailey always meant for his company to outlast him; not all dance troupes survive the loss of their founders. He picked Judith Jamison to succeed him as artistic director, and her dedication was key to helping the group go on, Wignot notes. She retired in 2011, succeeded by Robert Battle.
Director Jamila Wignot, courtesy of Neon
Under Battle in 2018, the company commissioned famed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris to craft an evening-long dance program for its 60th anniversary. Wignot was able to film rehearsals of the piece, Lazarus, and includes the footage in her documentary. “They’re just extraordinary,” she says of the Ailey dancers.
She intends for film audiences to recognize that Ailey was extraordinary as well. “I hope they walk away,” she says, “just loving this beautiful, beautiful human who gave the world so much.”
Ailey opens Friday at Film at Lincoln Center and the Angelika Film Center, both in New York City. Wignot and other guests will do question-and-answer sessions during the opening weekend. The film will open at additional theaters August 6. For more information, visit distributor Neon’s website. Watch the trailer below.