January 31, 2022—Last summer, I had the opportunity to see the documentary, AILEY, directed by award-winning filmmaker Jamila Wignot. I was so inspired, moved and thrilled by the film showcasing the life one of America’s greatest choreographers that I urged my team at NJPAC to create a program, in conjunction with the PBS screening of the film, to explore the development, leadership and legacy of Alvin Ailey.
The film, which can be viewed for free at this link until February 8, 2022, opens with a declaration from the late actress Cicely Tyson about Mr. Ailey’s passion for movement that “reveals the meaning of things….his is a choreography of the heart.” Through dance, Mr. Ailey is renowned for depicting the joys and challenges of African-American life, as well as demands for social justice. The film showcases how Mr. Ailey transformed his “blood memories” of Texas segregation, which marked the early days of his life, into art that was black, universal, and moved the hearts of millions.
When I think about the film and Mr. Ailey’s legacy, I think about the spirit of Sankofa; a word that originates from at least two of the 50 languages spoken in Ghana. The spirit of Sankofa is to take from the past and bring it into the present to make progress in the future.” I believe that is the superpower of the documentary, AILEY. It epitomizes the power of transforming life’s struggles into art with the “never give up” spirit that it will advance the future.
I also encourage the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to check out the NJPAC panel discussion about the film. The panel brought together two of the people who have been charged with sustaining Mr. Ailey’s vision and legacy—Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle and Ailey Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison—along with Ms. Wignot. Moderated by Rutgers University Professor Salamishah Tillett, Ph.D., it was a lively, informative and loving discussion about Mr. Ailey’s life; their personal experiences with Mr. Ailey, along with their vision for the future. You can view the panel at this link.
I believe anyone who is passionate about dance and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has an “Ailey story”—a transformational experience resulting from seeing a company performance. This is mine, which took root before I was 20:
Growing up in Chicago, one of our dance sheroes was the late Thea Nerissa Barnes. My twin sister and I danced with her in the Julian Swain Contemporary Dance Theater and we took classes together at Mayfair Dance Academy. When Thea received a scholarship and moved to New York to study dance, she subsequently joined the Ailey company. We all became major Ailey fans because one of our own had been embraced and was performing onstage in New York, as well as all over the world!
Later, when my twin sister and I were studying abroad, we were magically in alignment with the Ailey company’s tour schedule. Consequently, we were able to take master classes with the company in Brazil, and later in Paris. I renew my connection with the company annually by attending several performances when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the New York City Center during the month of December.
I hope you all will be able to take advantage of the free opportunity to see the film being streamed by PBS, and check out the NJPAC panel discussion. As always, I invite you to share your comments below. What did you learn from the film or the panel about Mr. Ailey’s legacy that you want to pass on to future generations?