A Step Ahead: The Vanguard Vision of Alvin Ailey

Written by | The Lens

Movement provides us both a declaration and an escape. We revel in the power of our muscles, the extension of our upper limbs and the grounded nature of our feet upon the earth.

Alvin Ailey celebrated the contradictory dynamic of liberation and oppression through his dance and choreography. A Gay, Black, Southern man growing up in the pre Civil Rights Act America, Ailey had every reason to be weighed down by bigotry, but he chose to rise above the ignorance around him.

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According to a new documentary about the visionary’s work, he wanted his performers to convey the complexities of the African-American experience with every flourish of their bodies. Even an arabesque, which is traditionally light and airy, needed to have gravitas in Ailey’s world.

Jamila Wignot, the director of the aforementioned doc, told them magazine, “I’m a huge fan of the Ailey company,” but she insists her movie eschews the typical biopic formula.

“It is not true to the spirit of Mr. Ailey’s vision to tell the story of just his life. He was always somebody looking past his own creations and thinking about ways that

he could leverage himself for the next generation of artists around him.”

As Wignot fell in love with the subject of her film, omitting any and all details became a herculean editing task.

“They were very tough decisions to make. You cry right from the beginning. You know that it’s impossible to fully represent his full life’s work.”

Ailey was immensely understated, but his orientation helped shape his artistry, so it was an important facet of the documentary.

“I wanted him to be able to speak to his own sexuality in the way that he did,” explains Wignot. “He was totally open about it within the dance world and everybody that he danced with. He was not in the closet in that sense. But he did not invite them into his private life.”

Instead, Ailey’s productions expressed his inner longings in extravagant ways. The undulation of the troupe, interlocking and swaying in unison, becomes a metaphor for human connection. We are all wounded, but we heal as one organism, evolving and enlightening as we fuse together, even if for a moment.

While Alvin Ailey’s choreography was unabashed, the man himself was a fascinating enigma.

“He kept his life very separate,” concludes Wignot, “which I think is a form of self-protection.”

Just as Ailey’s discretion saved him, his genius saved us. We continue to dance in his honor; he is an eternal revelation


Last modified: July 30, 2021