Ailey is a documentary film which follows the life of pioneering dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. Directed by Jamila Wignot, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now showing at Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. The film chronicles Mr Ailey's unique perspective on dance, his rise to fame in 1950s America, his global acclaim, obsessions, personal struggles, his untimely death and his continued influence.
The film showcases emotional interviews and an impressive archive of dance and tour footage gathered from across Ailey’s career, coinciding with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's 60th anniversary celebration's producton. We spoke to the film's Director Jamila Wignot about the film.
How and why did the film come about?
The film came to me. Steven Ives and Amanda Pollack of Insignia Films approached me about directing a film about Alvin Ailey and my mind was blown! I had been a fan of the company since I first saw them perform in college and I was really excited about the idea of delving into the dance works and working on a film that would be rooted in movement, emotion, and strong visual language because of the nature of dance. I didn't know Mr. Ailey's full story, but I was also excited because so many of his closest and longest collaborators were around to provide insights into his story and that kind of witness-driven storytelling is so exciting for me when possible in historical documentaries.
Other than Mr Ailey's iconic cultural legacy, what was the one thing that pulled you to create this film?
In my earliest research I could see that Mr. Ailey, from his earliest years, was the kind of person who was alive to the world around him and someone who was on the search. It felt like a film that could be about his story of becoming. At the same time, I was excited about capturing the Ailey company in the present day. It wasn't planned or orchestrated, but at the time we approached the company they were in the planning stages of their 60th anniversary and had commissioned Rennie Harris to create a piece inspired by Mr. Ailey. The interplay between Mr. Ailey's story of becoming and witnessing a dance evolve in the rehearsal room was really exciting.
In the four years you spent creating this film, what has been the most significant wisdom you learnt through observing Mr Ailey's life?
What I've taken from this film is a real appreciation for Mr. Ailey's tenacity, his effort to find and follow his own voice. I'm also cognizant of the struggle and sacrifice he made. Many of the works we featured in the film are reminders to stay true to ourselves. In Cry we witness the journey of a woman who experiences bitter hardship, brutality even. It's not clear that she transcends the reality of her circumstances, but she finds something in herself, some piece of herself that is whole in spite of all she's suffered. There's a sense of self-acceptance and self-love that I think is at the center of many of Mr. Ailey's work that has been so meaningful to me. I think that message was meaningful to Mr. Ailey as well. I do not think he staged these works because he felt he had answers. He wrestled with insecurity, with doubt, with tremendous loneliness. So, I think he staged works that told stories that he needed as much as his audience did. So that sense of loving yourself, of seeing your beauty, and doing it with tenacity--that's what I've taken from Mr. Ailey's life.
The film showcases Black joy, interlaced with Mr Ailey's pain, how was the process like for you of navigating those two realities of the Black experience?
I wanted a film that felt immersive and that might mirror the emotional experience of an evening of Ailey. I wanted to see and feel the textures of Mr. Ailey's life, which was defined by hardship, no doubt. At the same time his life, like all our lives, was rich with culture and love: there is family, music, dance, humor, and beauty. I wanted an honest sense of the dehumanizing, often brutal conditions that shape Black life - but I also wanted the film to be rich with imagery of the things that define Black life. I wanted to see and center Black life beyond the white gaze and the white world.
The opening scene includes the late Cicely Tyson making a tribute to Mr Ailey, at the 1988 Kennedy Center Honors, was that included before her passing?
Yes! We wrestled with the opening for many months and ultimately we felt it was important to open with a scene that gave viewers a sense of Mr. Ailey's accomplishment and contribution as an American artist. We finished the film in December and Ms. Tyson passed in late January. It was coincidence, but it's very emotional still to be introduced to Mr. Ailey through Ms. Tyson who was his friend, contemporary, and a legendary artist in her own right.
The film includes the Alvin Ailey company preparing a 60th anniversary tribute to him in 2018, was that planned to coincide with the filmmaking process or was it a synchronistic occurrence?
Yes it was synchronistic. We approached the Ailey company and pitched them on the idea of allowing us to do a film. At the time we knew we wanted to feature the company today. Mr. Ailey's vision and mission have lived on and so to my mind a biographical portrait that ended with his death in 1989 would feel untrue to who he was. We were aware of the forthcoming anniversary, but we had no idea that the company had commissioned a new hour long ballet. It was just one of the many amazing and beautiful moments of the stars aligning for us.
Now showing at Encounters South African International Documentary Festival
There will also be a live Panel Discussion with Jamila Wignot Director of AILEY and Thobile Maphanga, George Faison, Gregory Maqoma, Moderated by Lliane Loots on 12 June at 7:40 PM. More info here.