Say “Alvin Ailey” and most people think of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the country’s most prestigious dance companies that, although an interracial group, celebrates the universality of the Black American experience.
But Ailey, the 1931 Texas-born choreographer who created AAADT in 1958, was as complicated as he was creative.
His life and work are celebrated – and revealed – in Jamila Wignot’s acclaimed new documentary “Ailey”, in which Ailey, gay, black and often lonely, comes into full view.
“Dancing on film has its own challenges,” Wignot said in a telephone interview. “It is also a challenge to make a documentary that can live up to the beauty of the movements that we are going to show. Trying to present this man’s story in an authentic and beautiful way is both a gift and a kind of jump off a mountain.”
Wignot’s doc looks at Ailey, who was 58 when he died in 1989, through archival footage, stories and observations from dancers and others.
“I really wanted to make a portrait of an artist. I saw it as a question about ‘becoming’ from the start. What fed this man’s soul? What experiences did he experience and how were those experiences translated into his work?
“Mr. Ailey’s work,” she noted, always referring to him formally, “was always rooted in such personal experiences. He’d talked about that in public interviews: his blood memories. So that was a big part.
“It’s a story about a man who focused on beauty and joy, who saw the kind of extraordinary potential and wealth of the community he came from. He wanted the world to see that.
“At the same time, the messages in those dances are the ones he needed, because he was an incredibly vulnerable, sensitive and in a way a lonely figure.
“We wanted to understand that in a way.”
Long recognized as an American cultural ambassador to the world, the company is best known for “Cry,” an emotional solo piece, and its joyous masterpiece “Revelations,” created in 1960.
“Revelations” is still performed and revered today, while Ailey has never made another ballet with that impact. Wasn’t he frustrated that “Revelations” remained his best-known and best-loved work?
“Absolutely! It’s an extraordinary dance piece, but I think he felt very locked in. That’s something he struggled with.
“As an artist you are interested in exploring and taking on new challenges. Feeling that you have to keep repeating a beloved work can be stifling.”
“Ailey” opens Friday.