August 13, 2021 Episode Transcript
The AIH Transcript For August 13, 2021
[hosts]Nil Köksal, Ali Hassan[/hosts]
NIL KOKSAL: Hello, I'm Nil Köksal, sitting in for Carol Off.
ALI HASSAN: Good evening. I'm Ali Hassan, sitting in for Chris Howden. This is "As It Happens".
NK: Woman of the cloth. A school superintendent in Florida tells us she's not about to let the governor's ban on mask mandates stop her from instituting one. And she believes most families have faith in her approach.
AH: Moving picture. Nil speaks with the director of a new documentary about celebrated Black choreographer Alvin Ailey -- who overcame tremendous personal struggles to stage some of the past century's most memorable works.
NK: Jamila Wignot says Mr. Ailey didn't just love modern dance; he loved the community of dancers who helped bring his vision to life.
AH: Growing hostility. In a summer of deadly disasters, tensions in Turkey are running high. And now simmering anti-immigrant sentiment is boiling over into actual attacks on refugees.
NK: Up to the tusk. A team of researchers spent years retracing the steps of a single wooly mammoth by analysing isotopes trapped in its ivory. They say it travelled an astonishing 70,000 kilometres -- a finding with far-reaching implications.
AH: And ... Long in the hoof. An Illinois sow got to ham it up for the cameras when she was declared the world's oldest pig in captivity. And the news had her owners squealing with excitement.
AH: "As It Happens", the Friday edition. Radio that's applauding the days of auld lang swine.
Part 1: Florida School Masks, Turkey Anti-Migrant Sentiments, Mammoth Tusk Study
Florida School Masks
Guest: Carlee Simon
AH: Being unvaccinated in Canada just got a little harder. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced today that federal government employees will need to be fully vaxed by the end of October. And if they plan on travelling by plane or train, other Canadians will have to follow suit. It's the kind of directive that could be massively effective -- and massively controversial. In the U.S., even lesser interventions, like mask mandates, have been banned by some Republican governors. And the local officials defying those bans have been subject to threats and intimidation. Carlee Simon is a school superintendent in Florida, which saw more than 21,000 new COVID-19 cases yesterday. Parents there are suing Governor Ron DeSantis over his ban on mask mandates. But Ms. Simon has already instituted one. We reached her in Gainesville, Florida.
NK: Ms. Simon, what made your board vote to defy Ron DeSantis?
CARLEE SIMON: We have been watching the COVID data, the positivity rate numbers, and it was becoming concerning over the summer. But really, where I think the board paused and decided they needed to pay much more attention to possibly having to change plans was we had two custodians pass away with it within two days of each other just over a week ago. So I myself, as a superintendent, I have the authority to have a mask mandate for all employees and all visitors on our campus. But the next day, the board sat at our board meeting, and we had experts from the University of Florida. And they came, and they shared the current data as well as what they were seeing in their hospitals. And it was compelling information. And the board voted unanimously to have a mask mandate for two weeks.
NK: What kind of consequences could the Alachua County public schools face?
CS: Well, so the governor had a... an executive order where he banned mandatory masks mandates. And he has threatened to take funding from the schools. But that ended up being adjusted to where he is now, threatening that he will take money from the superintendent and the board members paycheques. And just yesterday evening, he realized that he doesn't distribute the paycheques to the superintendents and the board members. And so he asked if they would... if this funding was cut, take the pay out of their own accounts, their own paycheques. We won't do that. If our funding gets cut, we will... we will look at other options, and we'll cross that bridge when we get there. But we won't take money from our students. We know how important it is.
NK: And personally, could you face consequences?
CS: At this point, I haven't heard him make any threats personally beyond just impacting my salary. I do have, you know, threats from the community, the small community of people, who are upset about having mass being required. And most of these are people who are right now focussing on their parental freedoms, and some of them are anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. And so I do have that. But it is a small group, but they are loud, and they are very angry.
NK: I understand you've been called some horrible names and even threatened with legal action?
CS: I have we have people who have decided that their way of expressing their anger has a lot of profanity attached to it and not always the kindest as well to a woman who's running an organization. But it's, you know, it's part of the situation, and I'm just accepting it and moving through it.
NK: Florida is now offering a voucher to families who want to pull their kids out of public schools that have mask mandates and enrol them in private schools instead. What do you think that will mean for students?
CS: So for our district, what we've seen so far is it had very little impact on our operations. So we have roughly 28,000 students. I believe I have six applications for the Hope Scholarship. And I believe most of these families, what they're realizing is that the private schools that we have, most of them have a mask mandatory as well. So they don't even have many private schools as an option within the county. And the ones that they do have don't have many available seats if any. I actually think I've heard now that there aren't any available seats in a private school. There are surrounding counties that have a mask-optional approach. And I'm not sure if these six people who have applied for the Hope Scholarship have found seats in one of our surrounding districts. We're also hoping that our surrounding districts that have the optional mask, that if there's families that want to have a mask mandate, they come to us. So our goal is to provide a safe school environment, and we welcome anyone else who would like to join us.
NK: It seems, as an outsider, a relatively simple thing to ask for given the time we're in. We're... we're wearing masks in our office as well. Why do you think there continues to be such vehement opposition to wearing that piece of cloth?
CS: Well, I think this energy has been ginned up for a while. You know, there's people who, unfortunately, take opportunities when we are in crisis, and they... they manipulate what's going on. And so, you know, this anti-covid existence and anti-mask that's been occurring for a while now, I mean, it's we're well over a year into this. And it is unfortunate because I think that, you know, my children, the children are not really fazed by this. I mean, obviously, there's some level where, you know, children aren't always comfortable, but the kids are behaving normally in school. They're enjoying their day. But the parents of these students who don't want to have masks, they're furious. And we have a few who, I mean, they must call our office every 10 minutes. And I don't understand because I do think, you know, it is a piece of cloth. It will protect people. And when you hear these stories about people who are on ventilators, I mean, I just... I would take a mask any day.
NK: You've mandated masks. What about vaccines?
CS: So, right now, I'm trying to incentivize vaccines. The fact that the COVID positivity rate is going up, people are getting vaccinated. I think we're having a lot of I should have done it sooner vaccines. And then we are… we are incentivizing. We're paying 100 dollars to anyone who's been vaccinated and anyone who gets vaccinated. We also are providing COVID leave for anyone who had the breakthrough. And we have had employees. In fact, my staff attorney, who has been vaccinated, she wasn't feeling well. She ended up getting tested. She was positive. And so she will be covered with our COVID leaves because essentially, our... our focus is to encourage people to get vaccinated. And we want to make sure that happens. I'm sure we're going to have to have discussions about mandating vaccines. Our city is having that discussion now, and we are watching it. But I think the topic's going to have to come up soon.
NK: Ms. Simon, I really appreciate your time.
CS: Thank you so much for having me.
AH: Carlee Simon is the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools. We reached her in Gainesville, Florida. And for more on this story, visit our website at: www.cbc.ca/aih.
Turkey Anti-Migrant Sentiments
Guest: Piotr Zalewski
AH: For years, Turkey has been a safe haven for millions of refugees fleeing war and persecution. But a decade after Syrian refugees first started arriving -- open arms are being replaced by anger. This week, a violent mob in the capital Ankara attacked Syrian businesses and homes. Images of the aftermath show vehicles being torched, Syrian families injured from stones thrown at them, and looting. This as the country faces multiple crises -- from forest fires and deadly floods. Piotr Zalewski is journalist for The Economist. We reached him in Istanbul.
NK: Piotr, can you describe some of the violence that's unfolded this week?
PIOTR ZALEWSKI: What happened in a district of Ankara was that a fight allegedly broke out between some Turkish and Syrian teenagers. And as a result, one of the Turkish youths was stabbed to death. Another Turkish youth was also stabbed but survived. And in response, hundreds of people from the neighbourhood, hundreds of Turks, went on a rampage, destroying houses and property and businesses belonging to the area's Syrian community to the area's Syrian refugees.
NK: What are authorities saying in the face of this hate and these attacks?
PZ: Well, the authorities are calling for calm. They've made some arrests. Initially, a couple of people were arrested in connection with the stabbing. And then, upwards of 70 people were arrested in connection with the looting and destruction of property.
NK: This anti-Syrian sentiment has been building in Turkey for years now.
PZ: Yeah, that's... that's perfectly right. Turks, I think, met the initial arrivals from Syria, who began fleeing to Turkey about a decade ago at the start of the Syrian civil war, with great sympathy. And that sympathy over the years, as the numbers have increased, and the current number of Syrians in Turkey is estimated to be 3.7 million, has given way to resentment. Turks resent Syrians for the free access to health care that they enjoy. Sometimes they resent them for a range of economic reasons, including increasing rents in areas where Syrians live. And sometimes for cultural reasons. You hear Turks often complaining about the way Syrians might behave, about the way that Syrians might stay up at night. And so I think from the outside, there's this perspective that, you know, Turks or rather Turkey is a natural home for Syrian refugees because the two communities are Muslims. And so they must get along. I think a lot of Turks would disagree with the sentiment and would say that there are important, you know, cultural differences between the two groups. And that helps explain at least some of the tension that we've seen boil over over the past couple of days. But this isn't the first time, and unfortunately, not the last time either. And politicians, to put it mildly, have not done a great job trying to contain the tensions. You know, you hear escalating anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the opposition most recently, but also from government circles. The opposition has called on the government to send back Syrians to Syria. And the government has even occasionally picked up on that.
NK: The backlash that's already in place. It is across party lines. You hinted at this. Youth unemployment is an issue as well. How much of... nothing justifies the attacks on refugees, obviously. But there are... there are layers to this sort of powderkeg of emotions.
PZ: Exactly. And, you know, the tragic thing is that as attitudes on the Turkish side have hardened, and I recall, you know, a recent poll according to which something like 82 per cent of Turks said that they did not want their children to marry a Syrian. And a similar share said that they want this… you know, they would like the Syrians to go back to Syria. Syrians themselves are feeling increasingly at home in Turkey, which is to say they are increasingly invested in building a life for themselves in Turkey. They don't expect and do not want to go back to Syria. And 89 per cent in a different study said that they were at least partially or felt that they were at least partially integrated into Turkish society. So you have this massive disconnect, which itself, you know, is going to be a source of friction between Turks who increasingly want the Syrians to go and Syrians who increasingly want to stay.
NK: What do you think would need to happen to bridge that divide? Like, do you foresee a future where they could get along?
PZ: Well, look, there's one thing that's worth pointing out, and that's given the scale of the problem, meaning the fact that Turkey is home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees. And hundreds of thousands of migrants from other places, including, you know, Afghanistan. These kind of events, this kind of violence, is still the exception rather than the rule. Yes, resentment is growing, but it seldom translates into violence. Obviously, it's tragic when it does. But this is still not, you know, widespread phenomenon. And there's hope that, you know, while the resentment might continue, the violence will only be sporadic. But even at that sporadic level, it's largely inevitable. And I think it's going to take years, and it's going to take a much more responsible leadership on the part of politicians to ensure some sense of coexistence. And I think the government, where the government has failed, is in making society understand that those Syrian refugees are probably not leaving, even if the situation in Syria stabilizes. Because many, most of them, simply have nothing to go back to.
NK: Piotr, thank you so much for your time.
PZ: and thank you for having me on.
AH: Piotr Zalewski is a journalist for The Economist in Istanbul. And that's where we reached him.
[music: reflective piano]
Mammoth Tusk Study
Guest: Clément Bataille
AH: The skeleton of a wooly mammoth is impressive to look at, standing taller than a one-storey house, with its long ivory tusks curving up into the air. And it turns out you can learn a lot from one of those tusks. A team of researchers has been able to retrace the steps of one mammoth by studying its tusk. They've discovered that it was born in Alaska and travelled 70,000 kilometers over the course of its life. Clément Bataille is the co-lead author of the study, and an assistant professor of earth and environmental Science at the University of Ottawa. We reached him in Ottawa.
NK: Clement, why did you want to unlock the secrets of the woolly mammoth using its tusk?
CLEMENT BATAILLE: Well, the main idea behind this is really to try to understand the extinction of those animals. And particularly, the link between climate change and extinction of megafauna. So we know that mammoth, woolly mammoth, disappeared 12,000 years ago. And that was linked to a huge transition in the climate of the Earth from glacial to interglacial. And we don't really understand why this huge climate change might have had an impact on this particular species. Because some other species, like caribou, for example, stayed alive through the interglacial, but some disappeared like the mammoths. So we were really trying to try to link this mobility with climate.
NK: And the tusk, as I understand it, holds just a treasure trove of information about where this creature lived?
CB: Yeah, yeah. So tusk is really exceptional because it's growing continuously. So it's a little bit like a tree ring that kind of keep recording every day of the life of the... of the mammoth because it grows constantly as the mammoth... about like six centimetre per year. And it grows a little bit like a stack of ice cream cones, if you want. With, like, the tip of the tusk as being the oldest and the base being the youngest. And so what we did is we split that tusk. And then inside that tusk, there is a chemical signature that's called isotope ratios that we can unlock using special instruments, laser ablation in particular, and try to measure those isotopes along the tusk at super, super high resolution. We measured, like, a million points along the tusk there. And this chemical signature are related to the landscape on which the mammoth is travelling. And because Alaska has such a huge range of geology, we can start to reconstruct the full history of the mammoth's movement because it went through so many different sort of geological location. And we can match location isotope ratio with that of the tusk.
NK: And where do the prehistoric rodents come in?
CB: Yeah, so that's where it comes in, it's to build that map. Because we analyse rodent isotope from all over Alaska to build that map. So why did we use rodent? First of all, just because rodents are kind of local animals. So they represent the local isotopic signature, local chemical signature. And so we use we used… we got rodent from all over, from a lot of different geology and a lot of different environmental condition. And then from there, we train a model to create a map that predicted those isotope ratio across the entire study area. And then from the tusk, we compared the isotope of the tusk with that of the map to kind of backtrack the step of the mammoth from its point of death.
NK: What kind of map emerged, where exactly did this mammoth go?
CB: Yeah, so the big surprise was that the mammoth moved like much more than what we expected. So the range of the mammoth ended up to be gigantic. He basically covered the entire state of Alaska. So it's a huge, huge range of movement. Then, the last thing we found that was the most surprising is that this mammoth, from the age of 15 years old and and later, when it becomes more of an adult male, starts to move three or four times in its life. This huge trip, like 600 kilometres at a time in like two or three months, going somewhere, somewhere very, like, distinctive. It seems like he really knew where he's going. And this was super surprising. And we looked at elephants and what happened with elephant is that at 15 years old, they get kicked out of the maternal herd and they start to really wander around the landscape much more, looking for new herds, for reproduction.
NK: Looking for love.
CB: So we think that... looking for love. That's it. So I think it was time our mammoth became kind of a lover and started to just really get excited about moving on the landscape and trying to find a new mammothess.
NK: Well, just to compare it, travelling a distance of... of twice around the world in a span of 28 years, that seems like a pretty long way to go. How does that compare, though, to what an elephant today might travel?
CB: It will be probably similar to what an African elephant will travel. A bit more, probably because the tundra in the Arctic is a very, very resource-poor landscape. So this huge animal must have had to move a bit more to just find its resources.
NK: So in the end, what questions has the study helped you answer? And maybe new questions have emerged about the connection between their migration behaviour and their ultimate extinction?
CB: I mean, I think it really help us to narrow down a bit the hypothesis about extinction. I mean, we can't really conclude with one single individual, so we'll have to do much more work and doing much more tusk just... to just draw a bigger conclusion. But what we could really say about this study is that this mammoth had to have had a huge landscape to survive, so a diverse landscape to transmit his genes, first of all. And he also probably needed a huge area for just resources. So that really helped us because what we think is that the transition of the glacial/interglacial, what happened is most of Alaska became forested when he became warmer and wetter. And that really fragmented the habitat of the mammoths and kind of prevented the mammoths to move maybe better as much on the landscape. So a little bit what we see today with elephants, which is we've parked them into these small national parks where they don't have a lot of land to roam around. And so that makes them more vulnerable to big climate variation. If there's a drought, they don't really have possibility to move around as much and to be flexible with their resources. And similarly, they don't have as much genetic diversity because they can't go to see different herds from different places. So I think this is really telling us a tale about how climate change is influencing species extinction in some ways. And we really hope to go much further with that with more tusks.
NK: Mr. Bataille, thank you for your time.
CB: OK, thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.
AH: Clément Bataille is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. He was in Ottawa.
[music: That "Corner Gas" like diner song]
AH: Super-seniors all have different tips for longevity. For 122-year-old Jeanne Louise Calment, it was olive oil, port and chocolate. For Kane Tanaka -- who turns 118 in January -- it's Othello and early mornings. Siblings Albano and Alberto Andrade -- who are 109 and 107 respectively -- they chalk it up to their comraderie ... and teetotaling. But one elderly Illinoisan has a rather different approach. Perhaps informed by the fact that she's a pig. Not in terms of what she eats. I mean literally. Baby Jane is a 23-year-old pot-bellied specimen who was named the world's oldest pig in captivity this week. Her keepers Patrick Cunningham and Stan Coffman adopted her from a Virginia rescue when she was just eight weeks old. And they say her secret is simple. She's a bed hog. According to Mr. Cunningham quote, "She rests her head on our pillows and sprawls out, leaving little space for us." Unquote. But they're not wallowing in self-pity. Instead, they say they're thankful for every day they have with Baby Jane. And they insist she's aging like a fine swine. You know, I've seen the pics. Even to my Muslim eyes, that beautiful pig doesn't look a day over 22.
Part 2: Feature: Alvin Ailey Documentary
Feature: Alvin Ailey Documentary
Guest: Jamila Wignot
AH: Alvin Ailey was a lot of things. A gifted choreographer. A child of the Great Depression. A champion of civil rights. And an intensely private man whose work had a hugely public impact. But it can be hard to describe a person when someone like Cicely Tyson has already done so. So here's how she put it, in a 1988 speech honouring Mr. Ailey at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
CICELY TYSON: Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of things. His is a choreography of the heart, drawing a whole new public to modern dance. Alvin Ailey is Black, and he's universal. The very spirit that has made him a pied piper of modern dance.
AH: Mr. Ailey did indeed attract many followers. But if he was a pied piper, he was never a deceptive one. And the enduring promise of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is as real as it gets. Alvin Ailey died from AIDS-related illness in 1989. And now -- more than three decades later -- the new film, AILEY, captures his indelible mark on modern dance. Jamila Wignot is its director. She spoke with Nil from Brooklyn.
NK: Jamila, welcome to "As It Happens".
JAMILA WIGNOT: Thank you. It's so nice to be in conversation with you today.
NK It's great to chat with you as well. Cicely Tyson's words are a powerful, perfect moment to... to begin your documentary. And it's a great starting point for our conversation as well. Those words, "Alvin Ailey is Black, and he is universal." What do those words mean to you?
JW: That she just sums it up so perfectly. I think there is an effort either to strip artists of colour of their backgrounds and where they come from and a kind of effort to, you know, maybe assimilate and... and become, quote/unquote, mainstream. At the same time, the flipside of that coin is an effort not to recognize that the human experience, the sort of essential universal human experiences, can also be lived out in bodies of colour. And so I think she opens her, you know, her introduction to honouring Alvin Ailey at the Kennedy Center by refusing to accept that he can't be both.
NK: One thing we don't see in the film, but clearly it guided you, is your first exposure to Alvin Ailey's artistry, seeing one of his productions. What do you remember about the first time you were exposed to that?
JW: I was a totally uninitiated person in terms of the world of modern dance and the Ailey company in general. So my... the Black student group on campus got some tickets to go down and see a show at Boston's Wang Center. And I just kind of went, you know, understanding I was going to be taking in an evening of dance. And it was just... it was just so powerful and so memorable. You know, the dance work that stuck with me from that evening's program, as it does with most people, is revelations. And I think just seeing the kind of history of a people told through movement was just so powerful. And the dance is this, you know, incredible saga from sorrow to community and a kind of survival that comes from, you know, a community rooted in a very specific, you know, religious tradition. And so 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 kind of human expression in Black stories at that time in any other kind of art form. So film and television wasn't really giving me that at that time. And that was, I think, very important as well.
NK: And what year was that that you saw it?
JW: I can't…. I'm like, was it '97, '98? It was my sophomore year.
NK: I only ask because, you know, we need to tell people, he choreographed this back in 1960 when he was just 29 years old. And it continues to resonate even... even today. And this notion, it's mentioned in the film, of the dancer as physical historian. That work and others that he put together certainly speaks to that.
JW: Absolutely. I think there is just, again, something timeless because it's rooted in a specific experience, but it's ultimately grounded in, you know, I think essential themes of what makes us human beings, you know? The possibility of feeling sorrow, loneliness, you know, isolation, but then also, community and collectivity and... and a kind of ecstatic expression at the end of the dance.
NK: He describes, you know, his ideas trying to get out. You know, he studied with Martha Graham and other modern dance greats, but he had his own original ideas that he couldn't keep inside. Where did all of that come from?
JW: I think at that moment in his journey, it's that he's dancing with the, you know, East Coast modern greats, as you mentioned, Martha Graham, Charles White, Hanya Holm, but he is not seeing maybe stories that connect deeply to his own experiences. And so what he does in that moment is reflect inward and think about, you know, where he came from, the experiences he was having. Modern dance was always about kind of looking at the everyman. And he in this moment chooses to look at the everyman from his own, you know, his own early years in Texas, the sort of humble origins from which he came. But also, again, recognizing the kind of beauty and power and joy and rich cultural traditions that... that are a part of that space. So the blues, the religious traditions, you know, community and... and collectivity.
NK: There is such incredible archival footage throughout this. Kudos to the team for digging all of this up. Going back, you know, to... to growing up in the segregated South during the Depression. But there's so much joy, Black joy in those moments, the dancing, the support, the community. Just tell me more about how he grew up?
JW: So he grew up in, you know, he's born in 1931, at the height of sort of the darkest what would be, you know, one of the darkest chapters in American history in terms of the violence and the brutality and the real kind of economic limitations put on Black people at that time. He's raised by a single mother. His father, you know, left the family shortly after he was, you know, when he was a young kid. And so they're really living this incredibly, you know, sort of nomadic lifestyle on the search for work for his mother to be able to... to help them survive. But I think what's... what's so amazing is that in spite of that hardship, he feels that it is at the same time a kind of very wealthy and resourced community, just not in the ways that we typically describe that wealth, which he says, you know, it was a time of love. It was a time of caring. It was a time when people didn't have much, but they had each other. And I think his capacity to just see that what can define and shape a community can be something deeper, more emotionally rooted is also, you know, truly significant. He saw both the beauty and the joy. And we wanted to be able at the top of the film, especially to be able... I, as a Black person, [chuckling] wanted to be able to see a world that felt like, yes, the life is not always defined by the kind of outside eye, the outside lens. What happens within a community when you have a backyard barbecue when you're just sort of having times of leisure. It's important for me to... 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.
NK: I want to play another clip from your film. It's from Bill T. Jones, and he's talking about a piece he choreographed for the Alvin Ailey Theater back in the early '80s. Take a listen.
BILL T. JONES: I remember him coming in and seeing the roughhousing, gestural language of "Fever Swamp". And him saying to me something that moves me very much right now. He said, "Don't hurt my boys, Bill. Don't hurt my boys." When he said boys, it meant that he loved them. He loved them because he was no longer lonely. And he had actually been given the wherewithal to open up this field to people like himself, my boys.
NK: What's your sense of the relationship Alvin Ailey had with his dancers?
JW: You know, I think it was one of incredible generosity and... and love. I think, you know, the company became his family and he was in many ways a kind of father figure. I think at a time when, you know, the tension for him was in many ways that he was seen as the one and only Black person in the modern dance world. He, you know, very sort of in a way that's 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, to bring a totally distinct dance style from what Mr. Ailey did so that the world would be potentially as kind of lonely as it had been for him as a... as a Black creator.
NK: There was a point to when the camera is on Mr. Ailey, and he's guiding his dancers, giving them instruction. And at that point, I thought he seems to have a really sort of loving and familial atmosphere here. And then the clip comes in saying, you know what, he could be tough, too. So tell me about that side of who he was?
JW: I mean, you know, I think like most choreographer's, he is in search of perfection, and when he doesn't see it, he was not somebody who was shy of, you know, giving a reprimand or a critique. I think, you know, there are... there are other choreographers who are notoriously harsh in their critique. And I don't think that Mr. Ailey ever sort of went that far. Everyone told that story that we allow Ms. Jamison to say, which is the, "Oh, that was great". Now, could you dance my choreography, please? [NK chuckles] Like, just a kind of very icy sarcasm that's like, "I don't know what you're doing out there, [laughing] but that's not my dance!"
NK: That's not what I told you to do.
JW: But I think also from a place, you know, always of love, I mean, it's perfection. But I think there is a sincerity when Mr. Ailey says later in the film that he loved the process of working together, of creating something where there was nothing before, I think, was king. And that was something that I, you know, as we got to know his story more, I really loved. Because I similarly sometimes feel like there are moments that you're in the edit and you're just working on, you know, you've found your rhythm, and you're working on kind of polishing and refining, and you really lose yourself. It can be very transcendent that you kind of enter into another realm. And I... as we kind of stumbled upon that, I just thought it was so beautiful.
NK: I'm Nil Köksal. And you were listening to "As It Happens", my conversation with Jamila Wignot. She's the director of a documentary about dance legend Alvin Ailey. He was an intensely private person, though. You know, one of the dancers mentions that... that they wouldn't see him for the entire day until it was time for rehearsal. He was very secretive, in particular about his personal life and his lovers. What were you able to learn about that side of Alvin Ailey life?
JW: I think he was very private, you know, beyond any kind of... beyond sort of like a romantic intimacy and keeping that away from the company, which he didn't do. I mean, they knew, as Bill Hammond says, he dated intermittently. They were aware of him. His sexuality was... was open to the company. It wasn't open to the public at large. It's just that he... he wasn't a person who seemed capable of creating the kind of intimacy, you know, friendship, romantic or otherwise, in his life that maybe he would even need. As George Faison said, creation is hard, and you need certain kinds of support structures in place. And Mr. Ailey wasn't able to do that. And yet, he was so dedicated to the work. So for... for me, I took sincerely what Bill Hammond, the company director, said at that point, that he was just so dedicated to this... this enterprise that he was trying to launch, that he... he fed all of himself, you know, into that. I mean, having relationships and a life, but not ever sort of being able to kind of allow... I don't know. I think for a reciprocity of love that he was, you know, he was the kind of person who could give love but somehow couldn't receive it. That's... 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.
NK: He actually speaks about that... that sacrifice in a 1988 interview that you have in the film. It's Alvin Ailey talking about the realities of life as a dancer. Let's play that.
HOST: Do you feel that you had to sacrifice anything to stay in dance?
ALVIN AILEY: Everything. It's an enormous sacrifice. I mean, it's a physical sacrifice. Dance hurts. We don't make that much money. I mean, touring six months out of a year is disastrous on any kind of personal life. It's a tough thing. You know, you have to be possessed to want to dance.
NK: You have to be possessed. Why do you think he kept dancing, despite having to sacrifice everything?
JW: I think it's where he could be most fully himself. I think on the stage, there was a range of... of, you know, expressive possibilities, you know, when he was himself dancing and then later when he's creating roles for others to dance, I think there's some way that he... I mean, to me, it's some way that he could synthesize all of the things that he was and kind of give over emotionally to the... to the stage. Being able to perform in public allowed him a kind of possibility that, I think, given the times he lived in, didn't. And I think, you know, one of the things we were really cautious about in the film was not trying to... it didn't feel right to try to ascribe, you know, ascribe his loneliness and this kind of elusiveness to any one thing in his life. You know, I feel like there's a tendency to assume that, oh, it's because of sexuality. Well, 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, you know, at the kind of highest levels of an extraordinarily elite art form? You know, 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, you know, working-class or impoverished, you know, 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. And I think all of those things fed into, you know, why he loved to dance because he was allowed to be himself. And also, you know, why he wasn't, you know, so capable of... of being all those things privately.
NK: We're all made up of so many layers of experience, right? He also, though, Mr. Ailey, dealt with... with mental health issues as well. There was a mental toll, not just a physical one, to his... his life.
JW: Yes, absolutely. And I think it's important to hear sort of, you know, how candidly he... nad yet, because it's Mr. Ailey, poetically, you know, he... he recounts that struggle. For sort of narrative purposes of the documentary, we hint at that early with Hope Clark, as she tells that story of Mr. Ailey coming on stage and wrapping them both in the stage curtain and then having, you know, no idea why he had done it. She says, you know, it's like there was another person inside the person. And so I think he was struggling with bipolar disorder, which is what he had, you know, throughout much of his life. And then because of the pressures, because of a way in which he hadn't, you know, engaged other aspects of life, you know, by the... by the 1980s, it's just too much. And he has this very public breakdown, which is, you know, devastating and I think very frightening.
NK: It was in 1989 that Mr. Ailey died of AIDS-related illness. It was the height of the HIV epidemic. And he was just 58 years old. What was the impact of that loss at that time?
JW: Oh, man. I mean, that is a time where, you know, there's an entire community of artists is really being just laid waste by this catastrophe that we... nobody could imagine. And I think it's... it's terrifying, you know, because it was actually if you were in the community, it was visible to you. You know, people started... you know, there were signs that people understood what was happening. And so... so I think it's just very frightening. And, you know, for the company, you know, what will we do without... without this man leading us? And, fortunately, I think he had built... he had built such powerful relationships with people that Ms. Jamison, you know, when he offers her the opportunity to take over, the company is willing to step in and then really carry on, you know, his vision and be this kind of spokesperson for him, this, like, keeper of his flame. So just... just a terrifying and terrible time.
NK: That's Judith Jamison that you mentioned there. She's featured in the film as well. In terms of that time, at that opening scene at the Kennedy Center honours, Mr. Ailey is receiving the honour that year. And it is Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, there at that time, of course, criticized then and now, certainly, for a lack of response to that HIV AIDS epidemic at the time. And you don't say anything about it. It just... it's a strong signal right at the beginning of the film of the kind of forces he was up against. Did you want to include that for that reason as well?
JW: Absolutely. I think we wanted to start the film in a way that would allow audiences who are unfamiliar with him to understand the heights he had achieved. And then we had this opportunity to create a kind of powerful bookend. So you don't see the Reagans in the opening sequence, but we bring them back at the end. So you're aware of, you know, who is running the country at the time that, you know, Mr. Ailey is given this award. And, of course, he did not disclose his status at the time of his death. It wasn't disclosed until his mother passed. And so, therefore, nobody, you know, you know, nobody knows publicly, you know, what he's suffering. And I... and, yes, we did want to show the Reagans maybe as the ultimate symbol of that. But I think, you know, what Bill T. Jones is speaking to is this kind of extreme hypocrisy of the way in which we choose how to embrace these people. And again, it's another moment where would those people have honoured him with that award if he was... if he had disclosed his status? And I think we all know the answer is no. And that is, you know, absolutely, you know, it's absurd that you're sort of... you can be paraded out as a symbol of something. But it's everything about your success in some way can be very conditional.
NK: Why do you think this is the right time for a documentary about Alvin Ailey 30-plus years after his death now?
JW: You know, we didn't... in kind of conceiving the film, I hadn't really considered that question of, you know, why this film, why now? Which is certainly something that your funders will always ask you to pitch. [both chuckling] I think it's unfortunately so many of the issues around, you know, race and sexuality and gender, we're still struggling with those maybe more... way more visibly now than I think we were. You know, for me in the 90s, I came up in a time of like, oh, we've achieved a colour-blind society. And that was, you know, the sort of statement. And... and now, you know, at the moment that, you know, we're... we're taking to the streets again and... and committing acts of resistance to be acknowledged. You know, that there's a move for, you know, we're still fighting for equity and inclusion. You know, I think Mr. Ailey's message is really to those of us who are in that fight, which is to remind us, you know, that... that as... as Mary Bernett says, identity matters. Like, who you are and what you are has extraordinary value. And do not let this world tell you otherwise. And don't... You know, don't just fight against, you know, these forces that are trying to tell you that. Remember to celebrate yourself and celebrate where you come from because your life is shaped by these forces, but it is not what defines you. And so to the extent that I think there's always going to be a need for that kind of message of self-love and self-acceptance, you know, he's just evergreen.
NK: What a beautiful film you've made. Thanks so much for talking to me about it, Jamila.
JW: Thank you so much, Nil. It's great to talk with you.
AH: Jamila Wignot is is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the director of the new documentary AILEY -- about the life and death of dancer Alvin Ailey. It's screening in select theatres now and will be available for streaming in the months ahead. For more on that story, visit our website at: www.cbc.ca/aih.