Alvin Ailey created 75 ballets over the course of his life. Judith Jamison, Ailey’s friend and one of the subjects of the eponymous new documentary on his life, discusses his prolific career, saying, the “speed in which our people and in which the creative ideas just keep coming” was so far ahead of others that “when you think of something, it’s passed. We already did it. We’re onto the next thing.”
“Mr. Ailey was always hitting those precipices as an artist and being very proud of his heritage,” Jamison said at Variety’s virtual Sundance Studio presented by AT&T TV. “Therefore, he called the company the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, not the Alvin Ailey Black American Dance Theater.”
“Ailey” director Jamila Wignot and Jamison joined Variety social media coordinator David Viramontes to discuss the film’s lyrical structure, the importance of honoring “blood memories” and the artist’s impact on American culture.
Weaving together archival footage of Ailey’s dance theater performances, audio recordings of Ailey himself, talking-head interviews and rehearsals from the current Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the film paints a portrait of the famed choreographer. “We really wanted the experience of seeing the film to feel like the kind of great drama you have when you see an Ailey dance,” explains Wignot.
When asked about this approach to the film’s editing, the director points to the importance of “blood memories” — a kind of embodiment of Ailey’s community and ancestors in which his work is rooted. Wignot says the film’s “dreamy quality is informed by [asking] ‘What is it like to experience a “blood memory”? How can we visualize that idea?’”
Jamison, who Ailey hand-picked to shepherd the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in his absence, emphasizes just how proud he was of his heritage and the mark he left on not just Black culture, but culture at large, summing up his outlook by paraphrasing a line from the film: “He talks about, ‘Please don’t categorize me, because you have your idea of what you think I’m supposed to do as a Black artist. I’m proud to be a Black artist, but I wake up every day being a Black artist — that’s nothing new to me.’”