‘Ailey’ uncovers the man behind the dances
Documentary screens Jan. 30 and Feb. 1
Park City audiences have had the chance to see the works of world-renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey thanks to the Park City Institute bringing his touring companies to town.
During this year’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences will get the opportunity to get to know the man who created the works “Revelations,” “Masekela Language” and “Cry,” through Jamila Wignot’s documentary “Ailey.”
The film will make its virtual festival premiere at 10 a.m. on Saturday, and Wignot is excited to screen her film.
“Sundance was a goal, and my entire team and I are elated, even though we won’t get to enjoy being at Park City,” Wignot said. “Obviously when you set out to make these films, you have hopes about how it will be received and where it may premiere.”
Wignot, an Emmy-, Peabody- and NAACP-award winning filmmaker is a fan of Ailey’s work, and was thrilled when she was approached by Insignia Films to make the documentary.
“Alvin Ailey is one of those artists that I’ve always admired, and he means so much to me,” Wignot said. “It was a beautiful and lucky thing to happen.”
During the initial stages of the project, Wignot and her team were tasked with how to cover Ailey’s life, which included his childhood in Texas, pursuing his artistic dream in Los Angeles, and his move to New York, where he created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“My editor and I joked that we should just make a 20-part podcast of all the things so we didn’t have to let a lot of the things we were working with go,” Wignot said.
Once the team decided to let Ailey’s dance take center stage, the project became manageable.
“We realized we needed to stay with his dance, which eventually captured his spirit,” she said. “Once we made ourselves focus on that, making choices became more clear to us.”
Wignot tapped into the various audio recordings and public interviews Ailey gave throughout his life, before his death in 1989.
“We also knew we wanted a contemporary component from the company today, because Mr. Ailey’s legacy lives on,” Wignot said. “We approached the company and explained to them our interest in doing a biographical portrait.”
The company referred the filmmaker and her team to its current artistic director Robert Battle, as well as former dancers and friends including Judith Jamison, Carmen de Lavallad, Don Martin, Masazumi Chaya, Mary Barnett, George Faison, Katherine Dunham and Sylvia Waters.
It also gave Wignot access to choreographer Rennie Harris, who was creating the work “Lazarus,” a piece about Ailey’s life that was commissioned by the company for its 60th anniversary in 2018.
“That was an early bit of serendipity, which shaped this project,” Wignot said. “Although we didn’t know what Rennie’s piece would look like, it was great to know we would be able to include that intimate glimpse into the studio today.”
Throughout her research for the film, Wignot felt as if she was meeting Ailey for the first time.
“When we started this project, I knew his dance works, but I didn’t have a sense of him as a man, or as a person,” she said. “Hearing him talk about his childhood and the great challenges and struggles in that childhood, but also (hearing him talk about) seeing the beauty that was around him showed me he wasn’t the kind of person who was inclined to allow the hardscrabble existence to eclipse the real ways that love, community and family surrounded him. That explained a lot to me as to why his work is so powerful.”
Because Ailey was so revered and was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1988, a few months before he died, Wignot was surprised to learn how lonely he was throughout his career.
“He was such an incredibly generous, beautiful, wonderful figure, and he was a person that was always able to bring people in,” she said. “He was always giving, but wasn’t able to create a life for himself outside of the dance company he poured so much of himself into.”
Working on the film also put Ailey’s place in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s into perspective for Wignot.
“I think that’s encapsulated with George Faison’s comment that they didn’t have to take to the streets to protest, because their protest was on the stage,” Wignot said. “What that gave me was an idea of, of course, fighting racism, and fighting against the institutions that are so built up against Black people at this time.”
Wignot’s research about the way Ailey used dance to advocate civil rights led her to another perspective about social change.
“Another kind of protest is showing your life for what it is and centering on your own experiences,” she said. “Black life is not just defined in opposition to another kind of culture. It is its own culture. It was meaningful to me to see self-acceptance and self-love are important things throughout the works.”
Wignot looks at Ailey’s pieces differently after completing her documentary.
“Knowing so much more about him makes me see something more in the dances,” she said. ‘I feel him more as a choreographer. There’s a sweetness that I see, and I see what characters were most aligned with him.”
While Wignot will miss coming to Park City in person, she is excited to know that “Ailey” is going to be virtually accessible to people around the world.
“That’s lovely for us, because it keeps in with Mr. Ailey’s mission,” she said. “He was an evangelist for the arts, and he wanted as many people as possible to be exposed to his dance, and to arts in general. Once we can enjoy in-person live events, I hope people will go and see the company when it comes to town.”
• 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30
• 8 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 1
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