Interviews

Watching Freedom on the Stage: Jamila Wignot Talks ‘Ailey’

Doc chronicles the life and work of choreographer Alvin Ailey.

A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Jack Mitchell.


Audiences hungry to bask in the power of the performing arts should take note of Ailey. This film by Jamila Wignot, premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey, who carved a unique space in contemporary dance by putting Black experiences in motion. Ailey tells the dancer’s story in his own words, drawing upon in-depth interviews in which Ailey recalled creating a space where a gay Black man like himself could express all forms of his being and share his experiences with the world. Wignot layers these interviews atop a tapestry of archival images showing the artist in his element with acclaimed works like “Wade in the Water” from Revelations taking centre stage. Much like Tom Volf’s Maria By Callas, is an intimate portrait that transports audiences through the places and memories that make the artist’s work so evocative.

Ailey captures the legacy of his craft through contemporary footage with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Wignot goes behind the scenes as the company begins rehearsals for Lazarus, an hour-long performance to mark the 60th anniversary of the company. Dynamic images from the rehearsals intersect with the The film also collects surviving members of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company who worked with Ailey during his peak and reflect upon his role as a creator and community builder..

The film brings audiences to the nourishing world of the performance space after nearly a year of absence. The tumultuous events of 2020—the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements both—let Alvin Ailey’s legacy resonate further as Wignot observes the dancers in motion. Through the fluid combination of past and present, the film observes the safe and inclusive space that Ailey created for artists to express themselves and for audiences to see their lives reflected onstage.

POV spoke with Jamila Wignot by phone ahead of Ailey’s Sundance premiere to discuss her process, inspiration, and tackling the film during the pandemic.

Ailey director Jamila Wignot
Photo by Adam Kurnitz

POV: Pat Mullen
JW: Jamila Wignot
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

POV: Can you tell me about the time you first encountered the work of Alvin Ailey?

JW: It was very serendipitous. That word has really shaped the making of this film. I was in college and the Black student union was giving out tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. I had never heard of the company and I just went to an evening of dance with friends. It was breathtaking. The dance that stayed with me most powerfully was Revelations, which they performed at the end. It got right to the core of me. That is something that everyone says about seeing Mr. Ailey’s work. It felt like I was watching freedom on the stage—these beautiful diverse bodies in motion. It felt like an opening, like I was leaning in the whole evening and it just stayed with me. These years later, here I am lucky enough to be able to work on a film about Mr. Ailey, the man.

POV: How did the film come about? Did it start as a biography of Alvin Ailey, or as a behind-the-scenes doc about the new work?

JK: Serendipity has really informed so much of this film coming to be. Insignia Films approached me about directing the film, noticing that American Masters had not made a biography about Mr. Ailey’s life—no biography, really, had been made in this way about Mr. Ailey’s life. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to include a contemporary portrait of the company because they are still thriving and vibrant. We understood that Mr. Ailey was always building something much bigger than himself. It wouldn’t be true to his biography to tell a story that was contained to his life and his death. When we approached the company in the early days to begin the relationship and build access to them, Robert Battle, the current artistic director said they had just commissioned Rennie Harris to do an evening-length work for to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the company. He asked if we’d like to film it. We started filming the summer of 2018 and went from there.

POV: The audio recordings add such a rich layer to the film. Where did you find them?

JW: Those audio recordings are from a wide range of materials, like Mr. Ailey’s public interviews, including some audio-only interviews he conducted during that time. There were also about 20 hours of audio recordings he conducted in the last year of his life that served as the research for an autobiography that was being written by A. Peter Bailey. Mr. Ailey wanted to create an autobiography himself, so those interviews are a much more intimate voice—he’s not being interviewed by a network, a local television outlet, or somebody overseas to promote the company. He’s really trying to get a sense of who he is, like an act of remembering. As he’s speaking, his words transport him back to the times that he’s speaking of. That gave us the chance to tell the story in Mr. Ailey’s own words.

POV: That makes the film resemble a living testimony, in a way. Similarly, one of the challenges with dance documentaries is to avoid making the performances seem flat and to make them feel as dynamic on screen as they are on stage. How did you bring Mr. Ailey’s dance work to life?

JW: One of the enormous challenges that we hadn’t reconciled ourselves to was [thinking] that if you love a performance, you can just show the film version of the performance. That doesn’t always translate neatly. It was a process of watching all the available versions of every dance that we wanted to show, and then looking for the moments where you were as close as you possibly could be to experiencing that energetic charge you feel when you’re at a dance performance. The big ending of Revelations is hard moment to translate.

The challenge that I personally wrestled with was the verité of the rehearsal scenes [of the new performance]. You have the power to change the meaning of the dance as the filmmaker. Rennie Harris is choreographing something that will ultimately be in the proscenium stage. There is a structure and arrangement to how he positions dancers and where he wants them to be. He anticipates your experience as an audience member, being able to move and scan the stage with your eyes as you choose. As a filmmaker, you’re choosing to show just one moment, so you create an edit as you isolate dancers within the frame. For the rehearsal process, we wanted people to feel like the rehearsal space is a sacred space. For Mr. Ailey, I think that’s where he was most comfortable, making work in its purest form. In the film, he talks about how choreographers come into the studio and carving this space. He loves the discipline and the magic that goes into making work. Once we realized that, it eased my concern about the ways in which Rennie’s dance work would be transformed by our cameras.

A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Jack Mitchell.


POV: I haven’t thought about that notion of changing the dance by film it. How did the verité shoots work with Rennie and the dancers?

JW: Fortunately, they basically rehearse for seven hours a day. We captured this rehearsal process as it unfolded, so we couldn’t insert ourselves into it. That would obviously effect everything Rennie was trying to do. We couldn’t ask dancers to be in a particular place and we couldn’t be in the way of Rennie, as he’s looking at dancing bodies to create this monumental work. It’s the first hour-long piece he’s ever set in the company. We hung back and began our days knowing that they would run through a phrase and would be doing 15 minutes or so from one part of the dance. The cinematographer and I would capture parts of the rehearsal in wide shots, and then we would go in and capture close-ups and details that we liked, or a particular dance movement that we thought was evocative for that day. We also got to film the final run-through. On that day, we had two cameras because we wanted to cover our bases and we had be out of the way.

POV: There isn’t much room for second takes, so I imagine in must take a great deal of planning for those shoots.

JW: In the research process, I did my due diligence not coming from a dance background. I watched various dance films to see how folks were covering it or filming ballet. I’m thinking of Wiseman’s film [La danse ] and Ballet 422 — that kind of verité film that covers the full company experience, but the movement was more lyrical or slowly paced. The first day we walked into the studio with Rennie—you see it in the first scene—my cinematographer [Naiti Gámez] and I were like, “Oh my God, these people are moving fast.” She was panning and trying to follow the movement. It was great to be working with the same DP because she’s familiar with the dance as it’s building. We were learning the dance, in a way, at the same time that the dancers themselves were and gaining confidence as we went.

POV: Alvin. Ailey talks about the day he saw Catherine Dunham and connected with the performance in ways that he didn’t with ballet. What are some of the films that gave you the spark to pursue filmmaking?

JW: I started as an archival researcher and then worked my way up the production line. I would say, “I work in film,” but it took me a while to say, “This is the thing I’m going to pursue.” But I do remember watching Eyes on the Prize when I was young. What really hit home for me was the ability to see the witness-driven testimony of people telling their own story and then seeing them in the historical footage. It was like an oral history, an extraordinary document of this movement. I remember the urgency and being drawn to the power of first-person testimony, which is a big influence on this film because we didn’t include professional scholars. The dancers themselves and the people who knew Mr. Ailey—and, of course, Mr. Ailey himself—are the scholars in our film. They are the experts in the story of this man and the company he built.

The other film, for me, was Illusions by Julie Dash. It’s actually available again on Criterion and I just rewatched it. I was just blown away by her command of cinematic language and how beautiful that film was, and how political it was in its framing. There’s an incredible scene in the middle where a Black woman is actually singing the song to be lip-synced by the white actress they’ve chosen, and it’s an excavation of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s a moment where [Dash] then frames the Black woman singer in a classical Hollywood golden age framing. It’s like, finally, that woman is being given the Hollywood treatment in this story about erasure. I just remember understanding the power of the frame and the meaning that can come from that.

A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Jack Mitchell.


POV: I didn’t realize that you came up through the process as an archival researcher. Besides the audio archives, were there any elements of the film that were real golden nuggets or hard to find?

JW: I haven’t been a lead archival producer for many years now on a film, but in 2013, I worked on a series African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates. I directed the third and sixth hours of the six hours—it’s a look from the ’60s through the present day. It was very challenging then to find archival footage that documented everyday ordinary Black life. As we began the archival process for this film, I just felt, “Oh my God—it’s all available to us now.” There has been such an amazing effort to have both preservation and then digitization, even in the last five years, that made a lot of the archival in our film available to us. We started the edit in the midst of the pandemic—our edit room opened March 8 when New York shut down—but my archival producer started a couple months before that and it was frightening to think about not being able to have access to all the materials right away, but then there they were. It’s actually a rare moment where I felt a tremendous amount of materials was available to us to build the world that Alvin Ailey experienced.

Mr. Ailey is an artist whose work is drawn from a place of resource and wealth, just not the way that this country thinks about resources and wealth. Do his checklist: he was born in 1931 in Jim Crow, Texas to a poor single mother, who had a nomadic lifestyle so they could sustain themselves. He’s in the margins of the margins of the margins, but there’s a space in which he is not in the margin and that is within his own world in his own community. He is very centered there and he chooses to make that the focus of his work. The [images of] juke joints and the church, all of that is gold. The archival choice of showing folks hanging out, folks dancing, folks enjoying each other—the beauty, and love, and joy that can be created in the midst of struggle is an important message for the film because it was so important to his dance work.

POV: Ailey underscores the importance of safe spaces where members of the Black community and other underrepresented groups can come together, create, and reflect their experiences. How has the pandemic effected this?

JW: It’s scary—those places don’t exist in New York right now. We had a very rigid shutdown. Nothing was open except the essential services in the summer months. People were finding inventive and beautiful ways to adapt with the outdoors, classes, and music. I live very close to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and nearly every entranceway of the park had a little jazz quartet. People gathered safely distanced just to take in the arts again. The Ailey Company fully shuttered, but they were able to do a virtual season. There’s some behind the scenes footage you see with six dancers, who are all more than six feet apart in these boxes that they built. The dancers had to stay within this taped space to learn the steps. That means a whole language of dance movement is taken from the choreographer. People can’t touch, people can’t connect. I think we all started to take for granted brick and mortar.

I really want there to be, like, a global dance party called “Unmasked” and you walk in with your mask, whip with them off, and just dance the night away. We all need something huge and cathartic like that to say goodbye to what we’ve been living in—hopefully in the summer. If there is such a thing as manifesting through words, then let’s manifest the global dance.

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