Alvin Ailey rose from humble beginnings in rural Texas to become one of the leading lights of the dance scene in New York at a time of great social upheaval. Through his own dance routines and later choreography of other African-American dancers, his shows came to represent a form of protest against the white patriarchy during the Civil Rights movement. Through his own voice and that of his friends, colleagues and modern commentators, we discover his place in modern dance history…
We really enjoyed the documentary. What led you to choose this subject then and can you tell our readers about it in your own words?
J: Ailey tells the story of Alvin Ailey, legendary Choreographer and dancer, and it’s really a story told through his own words and those of his closest collaborators to understand, as i say, his journey of becoming, as an artist. I feel very lucky – sometimes you choose the subject for a film and in this case I feel like this film found me. I was approached by some filmmakers who I knew through PBS which is our public media and they were looking for a director to make a film about Alvin Ailey. They asked me if I was interested and my jaw hit the floor because at that time I was really excited to be working on a documentary that would feature so many of his dance works. I mean I knew ultimately that it would be a biography – a portrait of him – but i didn’t know that much about him when I set out. I sort of had the bare bones sense of him and mostly I was drawn to it because it was thrilling to get to work with dance and have a film that had so many visual possibilities. And then to deepen my sense of him and to spend time with his collaborators, steeped in his voice and experience through these audiotapes that we had access to was enriching and a real honour and privilege.
I was really struck by how much of an impact he has had on dance in America and worldwide. We take for granted now that so much modern dance comes from black roots but I was surprised by how much of what we have today seems to have come from Alvin’s choice to bring a black perspective to dance in a way that hadn’t been widely seen before. Did that have any impact on your choice to take on the project?
J: Yeah his perspective in some of his most signature dance works – Revelations, Cry, Blue Suite, even his pieces rooted in the music of Duke Ellington – That’s what struck me when I discovered his company for the first time in college in the mid-nineties. He was really centring his experience in a way that we are talking about now! We are no longer trying to create portraits where we exist alongside the dominant group as the best ‘fill in the blank’ friend of the typically cis straight guy.
The cis-het white guy?
J: (laughs) Yeah! And that he was doing that in 1958 is this incredible moment. There had been other white modern dancers who had been making dance works that were exploring spirituals and obviously a lot of modern dance is centred in Africanist dance but he said no I’m going to look at where it came from, I’m going to centre those stories. I’m going to tell kind of dramatic, theatrical, incredible sweeping emotional stories but it’s going to be rooted in the black experience. He was saying this is going to be a very specific world and yet the human beings within it are totally universal. And I think that was really mind blowing and opened up so much possibility and I felt that even in the mid-nineties like ‘man, look at what he’s doing!’ And so i think that that’s a huge part of what makes him such a trailblazer – to do that and to be so in that vanguard looking at ethnic roots and thinking about our stories and where we come from.
Seeing the sheer guts of someone who, whilst the original civil rights movement was happening, say I am going to tell these stories with clearly queer black men dancing in a way that is celebratory and unashamed and putting them in front of white audiences who might never have seen anything like that in their lives – I was blown away by that. We are having these conversations in 2021 and it’s mind blowing that he was doing it 50 years ago.
J: I agree. I think to add to that, it’s interesting to think about what everybody brings to an Ailey performance. I think there are plenty of straight people who aren’t seeing… who aren’t queering the dance in quite the same way… but I think there are openings for that. I asked some people oh did he stage sexuality and from the queer people who are interviewed in the film I got like a massive eye roll, like ‘Do you stage sexuality?’ As a straight person are you staging your sexuality? So there are some interesting themes there around what are we seeing when we watch bodies in motion and what are we able to see encoded. And for Ailey himself, I think when you look at the release you see in the unfortunately few filmed versions of him dancing there is a real sense of freedom that actually on stage he could be so much of himself in a way that possibly he couldn’t access as a public figure and maybe even in his own private life.
You made a bold decision to juxtapose the creation of a new piece by another choreographer Rennie Harris working with Alvin’s now legendary company against the archival footage and restagings of the original Ailey works. I thought it was a very successful choice. Why did you decide to go down that route and feature another choreographer with the modern company?
J: Right from the initial conversation I had with Steve Ives and Amanda Pollock from Insignia Films, the production company that came to me about making the film, we talked about wanting to do some sort of contemporary portrait of the company because Ailey was so concerned and invested in creating a platform for future dance makers and dancers. To tell a portrait of his life and keep it confined to his birth and death is not a true portrait because he was so invested in the future and because, thankfully, the institution he created lives on. And so it just felt like everything that’s happening today is an extension of him and we were going to search for some way of showing that. At the time we thought maybe there’ll be some young dancer just starting out or maybe something happening at the company – we didn’t really know – and when we told them we’d love to include a contemporary look at the company, Robert Battle the artistic director said ‘Oh that’s really interesting that you’re coming to me at this moment because we just commissioned Rennie Harris to do a new work to commemorate the 60th Anniversary that would be an hour long ballet looking at the life and times of Alvin Ailey. And we were like… Great! Now that didn’t mean that a marriage of a new dance work by a different artist going on his own journey to understand Alvin and to translate that understanding to a dance work and our journey to tell this biographical portrait of him would be easy… finding the balance between the two was an interesting tricky challenge of the editorial process.
We were falling so much in love with Rennie Harris and Lazarus and then we’d fall back in love with Alvin Ailey and there was this interesting dance for lack of a better word between the two. ultimately it was about finding the thematic tissue that Rennie was sourcing to build his dance work, the meta ideas of his choreography, and then looking at where did that intersect and align with the experiences that Ailey himself was having in his lifetime. It was so great and honestly so brave of the company and Rennie in particular – and generous – because to have cameras in the room when you’re creating the work and you have just these embryonic ideas was just incredible. Another moment of so many moments of serendipity.
It’s incredibly vulnerable to be putting together new work and to see that coming together is such a special thing – it felt like the new piece could have been its own documentary.
J: Yes! And at times it was (laughter)
Tell us about your music choices for the film
J: Music was so important to Ailey but we knew that we were going to have Ailey’s dance works themselves with their own music… then Rennie’s dance work with its own music and it was like… what was the language of our music going to be to support Ailey’s story. We went for something understated but really present – like if there was a sound and a music to Ailey’s emotional experience, what would that be… We got to work with this incredible composer Daniel Bernard Romain who really got that. Interestingly he started in NYC as a live musician for dance, coming in to play for Martha Graham and the Ailey company and others so he really understood the universe. One of the first things he composed was the piece that we call the Ailey Theme which is what you hear on the title – there’s this beautiful set of chords that’s rich and supportive which we’ve threaded throughout. And we mixed it so it was almost in the visual imagery, more than on top. If you get to see it in the theatres, the sound design in the mix is incredibly all-encompassing and you feel it. So much of this film is about an experiential journey and the music was another layer to achieve that.
Alvin having an AIDS related death mirrored another fantastic documentary from last year – ‘Howard’ about Howard Ashman the Disney lyricist – who was also a gay man who died too soon. There’s a huge amount of emotion in the film surrounding Alvin’s death but you don’t dwell on it
J: The balance with this film was that we wanted to be on his journey and there is no way to do justice to the genocide of what AIDS really was. We needed to make him a part of that moment in history but we had tried to scale up that part but it became problematic because then we weren’t doing justice to what the AIDS crisis did to this country at that time. With Bill T Jones we were able to acknowledge that complicated point where he doesn’t do right by himself and maybe the queer community in that moment in terms of his decision to edit out that part of his history and yet there is so much fraught around what would have been possible for this institution that he built had he done it. And that’s why for those who recognise him, Ronald Reagan is up there as this very evil figure in this moment who is consigning people to their deaths and it’s this idea that at this moment of achieving his highest honour as an American artist he is given that award by someone who would have no compassion for him if he knew the circumstances.
That moment is devastating. Artfully juxtaposed. Painful to watch. What is your hope that people will take away from this film?
J: I think recognising the vulnerability and the sacrifice that was so much a part of his journey. In the end he is such a towering icon of a figure and yet all that it took to achieve that – all the sacrifices he willingly made and felt he had to make – and that incredibly vulnerable and sensitive and delicate person at the centre of it. And that they think about the way that we treat our living artists now and to question what it means to make somebody an icon. How can we appreciate our artists without making them into tiny little gold statuettes who aren’t allowed to be vulnerable or have feelings. To be lost. I think a greater sense of care was not possible for him in his lifetime and I’m just hopeful that this is a film that can celebrate him whilst also acknowledging the ways that we did not do right by him in his lifetime.
Interview by AJ O’Neill
AILEY is released in cinemas and on demand 7th January