Ailey, a new documentary from Town Hall director Jamila Wignot, opens with footage of the late Cicely Tyson introducing the pioneering choreographer Alvin Ailey as the “pied piper of modern dance” at the Kennedy Centre Honours.
The work of the renowned African-American dancer and choreographer is – over the course of this compelling new film – compared with a train that changes the very geography around it as it moves through space. Or, as Tyson put it: “Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of things. His is a choreography of the heart.”
Film-maker Jamila Wignot
“From the moment in time that he arrives into the modern dance scene, he created these dance works that are very much rooted in the abstract forms, and lines that are so much a part of that tradition but that also have an incredible theatrical quality and a real narrative sense,” says Wignot. “He’s channelled his own life experiences and his ethnic backgrounds and spirituals into modern dance. But there’s an accessibility and a joy that’s a part of his work. I think that’s why people gravitate toward him.
“He created a repertory company because he was not only interested in staging his own works. He was using his own company as a Trojan horse. He gets you in the doors but you’re actually going to see something very different than what you came for. He’d bring in a dance-maker who comes out of a very different tradition – someone like Bill T Jones – and that gave the dancers a whole new language of dance to work with, and audiences access to something that they maybe wouldn’t have seen otherwise. He was a dance evangelist in a way that I think other modern dance choreographers weren’t.”
What was really amazing was this notion of blood memories, which was Mr Ailey’s idea of a kind of ancestral memory… that he feels informs his southern black experience
Wignot is neither a choreographer nor a dance historian, but while attending Wellesley College on a scholarship, she received tickets from a black student group to see Ailey’s company – the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Company – where he pioneered a fusion of ballet, jazz and African-American dance. The performances stayed with her. Two decades later, by a remarkable coincidence, the film-maker was approached by Insignia Productions and PBS to direct a biographical documentary.
“I had enough luck to discover him,” she says. “The dance piece I remember most is Revelations. It stuck with me and I continued to see the company perform. Over the years, …….