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AILEY

Synopsis

Alvin Ailey is one of the most important choreographers in the history of modern dance. In 1958, at just 27 years-old, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s vision was of Black bodies unshackled and overflowing with feeling: Confidence… sorrow... Joy… pride… beauty… possibility.

Ailey is a sensorial, archival-rich story that traces the full contours of this extraordinary artist’s biography and connects his past to our present with an intimate glimpse into the Ailey studios today, where we follow innovative hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as he conceives a new dance inspired by Ailey’s life.

Using never-before-heard audio interviews recorded in the last year of his life, we experience Ailey’s astonishing journey in his words, starting with the textures of his childhood in Jim Crow Texas. Raised by a single mother who struggled to provide, Ailey knew hardship, but his life was rich with culture and love. He brings us into his world of blues and gospel, juke joints and church. And he tells us about the blush of young love and the awakening of his gay identity.

Ailey’s story is one of sacrifice. Possessed by his ambitions, he dedicated himself to his company. He endured racism and homophobia; addiction and mental illness; and the burden of being an iconic African American artist. In 1989, he tragically succumbed to the AIDS epidemic.

Thirty years later, Ailey’s dream lives on. Where other modern dance companies were built to showcase their founders, Ailey saw his own as bigger than himself. Throughout his rich journey, our film interweaves Rennie Harris’ present-day rehearsal process to show the enduring power of Ailey’s vision. In Harris’ creative process, Ailey comes alive for a whole new generation: His faith in the transformative power of dance, his grand embrace, his expression of complete freedom.

The Filmmakers

Jamila Wignot Director

Jamila Wignot is a documentary filmmaker based in New York. Her directing work includes the Peabody, Emmy and NAACP award-winning series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (PBS), hosted by Henry Louis Gates and chronicling the five hundred year history of African Americans; Town Hall (co-directed with Sierra Pettingill), a feature-length co-production with ITVS following Tea Party activists determined to unseat Barack Obama; and, for PBS’s American Experience series, the Peabody Award-winning Triangle Fire and Emmy-nominated Walt Whitman. Jamila’s producing credits include W. Kamau Bell’s Bring The Pain (A&E); Sundance award-winning director Musa Syeed's narrative feature A Stray (SXSW); Street Fighting Men, following the Black Detroiters fighting for the city they love; and The Rehnquist Revolution, the fourth episode of WNET’s series The Supreme Court, which was an IDA Best Limited Series winner.

Lauren DeFilippo Producer

Lauren DeFilippo is a documentary director and producer based in New York. Her short films—most notably Clean Hands, The Here After and Detroit Party Marching Band —have screened at numerous festivals, including Slamdance, Hot Docs and CPH:DOX, and have been featured on The New York Times Op-Docs and Eyeslicer II . Her work has been supported by institutions such as the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms, Sundance Institute and IFP Documentary Lab. Lauren co-produced the Emmy-nominated Into the Canyon for National Geographic. Her recent directorial feature debut, Red Heaven (co-directed with Katherine Gorringe), follows six people as they live for a year inside a NASA psychological experiment to simulate humanity’s first outpost on Mars. In addition to producing Ailey , Lauren is currently directing Free Money, a feature-documentary about the world’s largest universal basic income experiment now underway in rural Kenya. She holds an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University.

Festivals & Awards

Sundance Film Festival

2021

Many know the name Alvin Ailey, but how many know the man? Ailey’s commitment to searching for truth in movement resulted in pioneering and enduring choreography that centers on African American experiences. Director Jamila Wignot’s resonant biography grants artful access to the elusive visionary who founded one of the world’s most renowned dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Wignot’s approach shares Ailey's love of poetry. Where Ailey conveyed poetry through movement, Wignot crafts a visual poetry to evoke Ailey’s memories. Archival footage, layered with audio recordings, expounds on Ailey’s upbringing and establishes the language of his inspiration. Interviews with celebrated company dancers and distinguished choreographers give insight into Ailey’s process and legacy, while the current company of dancers work to bring a tribute to life. Wignot’s portrait is complex, capturing the talent and confidence of a man in the spotlight while also carving out space for Ailey’s vulnerability. Wignot moves between the interior and exterior, the inhale and exhale, to capture Ailey’s reverberating impact.

+ Festival Website

Tribeca Film Festival

2021

Ailey is a dynamic profile of the iconic dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. Framed around a remastered voice over of Ailey himself recounting his own life story, the film takes us from his humble childhood in segregated Texas through his stints on Broadway and in Hollywood, before finding his niche as a choreographer and founding his eponymous dance troupe. Interwoven with awe-inspiring dance footage of Ailey and his company over the decades is the current company rehearsing choreographer Rennie Harris’s hauntingly beautiful tribute piece to Ailey. Colleagues and fellow dance greats Judith Jamison, Bill T. Jones, Carmen de Lavallade round out the story of this trailblazer who, through dance, interpreted the Black American experience with grace, strength and unparalleled beauty.

Mining the extensive Ailey archives, award-winning director Jamila Wignot treats us to rarely seen footage of early performances, while also providing fly-on-the-wall access to the inner workings of today’s company, displaying the continuum of movement that was Mr. Ailey’s lifeblood. Through her skillful direction emerges this nuanced portrait of a complex and gifted man, an apt tribute to his life and legacy.

—Karen McMullen

+ Festival Website