As It Happens

He was Black, gay and bipolar — and he forever changed the face of modern dance

More than three decades after his death, a new film explores the many facets American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, an intensely private man whose legacy is still being felt today.

New documentary explores the complex life and legacy of American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey

A new documentary explores the life and legacy of Alvin Ailey, a U.S. dancer, choreographer and civil rights champion. (Elevation Pictires)

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When Alvin Ailey won his country's highest honours for the performing arts, almost nobody knew he was HIV-positive and would be dead within a year.

Ailey, a new documentary about the trailblazing Black dancer and choreographer, opens on the moment he received the Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime contribution to American culture on Dec. 4, 1988. 

Some of the most powerful people in the country were on hand, including then-president Ronald Reagan, a man widely criticized for his failure to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

"Would those people have honoured him with that award if he had disclosed his status? I think we all know the answer is no," Ailey director Jamila Wignot said to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. 

"It's absurd that you can be paraded out as a symbol of something, but everything about your success, in some way, can be very conditional."

A year later, on Dec. 1, 1989, Ailey died of complications related to AIDS — a fact that wouldn't be disclosed publicly until years later, when his mother died, because he wanted to shield her from the stigma. He was 58.

It was one of many things Ailey kept close to his chest, including his romantic life and his struggles with mental illness. But at the same time, he poured his heart and soul into work for all the world to see. 

Now, more than three decades after his death, the new film explores the many facets of the intensely private man whose legacy has changed the face of modern dance. 

A poster for the film Ailey, which is playing in select theatres now. (Elevation Pictures)

Wignot still remembers the first time she saw a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the company Ailey founded in 1958, which remains a global powerhouse today. 

It was the late '90s and she was in her sophomore year at college, when the Black student organization she was part of secured tickets for a show at the Wang Centre in Boston. She didn't know anything about modern dance.

"I just remember thinking, like, I've never seen anything like this in the world. And what's more, I wasn't seeing that level of human expression in Black stories at that time in any other kind of art form," she said.

She was taken aback not only by the pain on display — but also the happiness and community.

"He saw both the beauty and the joy," she said.

Jamila Wignot is the director of the documentary. (Elevation Pictures)

Ailey, she said, dealt with strife during his life. He was born in the segregated South. He grew up without a father. He was Black, gay, and mentally ill in a society that denigrated all of those identities.

But his performances captured the beauty and kinship of Black communities and he seemed to infuse all of his work with a profound love, she said.

It's a duality she wanted to capture in her film. 

"I, as a Black person, wanted to be able to see a world that felt like, yes, life is not always defined by the kind of outside eye, the outside lens," she said. 

"What happens within a community when you have a backyard barbecue, when you're just sort of having times of leisure, it was important for me in this film to be able to showcase that, because in many ways, it's something I'm so starved for myself — to be able to see that."

Dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform a scene from Echoes during a dress rehearsal on April 14, 2010. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The film features archival footage interspersed with interviews with dancers, choreographers and other colleagues, who describe Ailey as a loving man who was protective of the young Black creators he mentored. 

Choreographer Bill T. Jones describes a particularly vigorous performance he was preparing for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and how Ailey warned him: "Don't hurt my boys."

"The company became his family and he was, in many ways, a kind of father figure, I think, at a time when the tension for him was, in many ways, that he was seen as the one and only Black person in the modern dance world," Wignot said. 

"He, in a way that [was] very ahead of his time, refused to accept that, and therefore created a company that wasn't just about staging his own works, but was about leveraging whatever platform he had to allow new voices like Bill T. Jones to enter the space … so that the world wouldn't be potentially as kind of lonely as it had been for him as a Black creator."

Ailey, pictured here in 1965, died of HIV/AIDS at the age of 58. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Still, on a personal level, she says Ailey was deeply lonely. He dated sometimes, but wasn't known to have serious relationships. His colleagues knew about his sexual orientation, but the wider public did not.

He was similarly private about his mental health until he had mental breakdown in 1980 and was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, now known as bipolar disorder.

"That's part of a sacrifice that he felt he had to make. And that, I think, is something we can all kind of learn from. I don't think it has to be that way," she said. 

It's easy to blame his sexual orientation for his lone-wolf status, she said. But in reality, his identity was far more layered and complex.

"Is it because of sexuality, or is it because he didn't have a relationship with a father? Or because he had this incredibly kind of fragmented early life experience? Or because he's a Black man trying to make it at the highest levels of an extraordinarily elite art form?" she said.

"I think it's dangerous to try to parse that out and give it any one meaning. I think you look at him and you see that he came of age and came into his own at a time where every part of mainstream society was telling him that what he was — which is a Black, gay, working class or impoverished person from Texas — like, none of those things add up to you will create one of the most important dance organizations in the history of the world."

Ailey is playing in select theatres now. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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