Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
S36 Ep1


Premiere: 1/11/2022 | 00:01:01 |

Discover the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey whose dances center on the Black American experience with grace, strength and beauty. Featuring previously unheard audio interviews with Ailey, interviews with those close to him and an intimate glimpse into the Ailey studios today.



About the Episode

American Masters: Ailey is a portrait of the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), a trailblazing pioneer who founded his influential studio Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 at age 27. The documentary traces the full contours of this brilliant and enigmatic man whose search for the truth in movement resulted in enduring choreography that centers on the Black American experience with inimitable grace and power. Told through the choreographer’s own words and featuring evocative archival footage and interviews with those close to him, director Jamila Wignot weaves together a resonant biography that connects Ailey’s past to our present with an intimate glimpse into the Ailey studios today, following innovative hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as he conceives a new dance, “Lazarus,” inspired by Ailey’s life. Opening the series’ 36th season, American Masters: Ailey premieres nationwide Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app.

Using previously unheard audio interviews recorded in the last year of Ailey’s life, the documentary presents the dancer’s remarkable journey in his own words, from his childhood in Jim Crow Texas to the inspiration for his 1960 masterpiece “Revelations.” Raised by a single mother, Ailey recounts the hardships of his childhood along with memories of blues and gospel music, juke joints, church, young love and the awakening of his gay identity. Throughout his life he endured racism, homophobia, addiction, mental illness and the burden of being an iconic African American artist, but he found salvation through dance. In 1989, he tragically succumbed to an AIDS-related illness.

More than 30 years later, Ailey’s dream lives on. Where other modern dance companies were built to showcase their founders, Ailey envisioned his own as bigger than himself. By interweaving Ailey’s rich journey with Harris’ present-day rehearsal process for “Lazarus,” American Masters: Ailey shows 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 and his expression of complete freedom.

Director Jamila Wignot said, “Ailey’s dances—celebrations of African American beauty and history—did more than move bodies; they opened minds. His dances were revolutionary social statements that staked a claim as powerful in his own time as in ours: Black life is central to the American story and deserves a central place in American art and on the world stage.”

"I love creating something, where there was nothing before."

American Masters: Ailey is a production of Goodhue Pictures for Insignia Films in association with American Masters Pictures, XTR, Impact Partners, ITVS, and Black Public Media. Directed and Produced by Jamila Wignot. Produced by Lauren DeFilippo. Executive Producers include Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak. Michael Kantor is executive producer of American Masters.

About American Masters
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, American Masters offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the podcast American Masters: Creative Spark, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of The WNET Group.

American Masters is available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


Investment support for American Masters: Ailey provided by Chicago Media Project, Natasha & David Dolby, Embrey Family Foundation, Nina & David Fialkow, The Fink Family Foundation, Caldwell Fisher Family Foundation, Scott & Molly Forstall, Marni J. Grossman, William F. Harnisch Foundation, The Lewis Foundation, Inc., Ann W. Lovell, Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, Meryl Metni, Jennifer Pelling, Bill & Eva Price, Scintilla Foundation, The Susan S. Shiva Foundation, Jennifer & Jonathan Allan Soros, Steiner King Foundation, Jim & Susan Swartz, Esmeralda & Scott Swartz, Jack, Susy, John & Shannon Wadsworth, and Christine Woodhouse & Seth Woodhouse.

Original episode production funding provided by Ford Foundation I JustFilms, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, The Westridge Foundation, Susan Lacy, and Harold and Isabel Feld Foundation.

Original series production funding for American Masters provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Rosalind P. Walter, Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen & James S. Marcus, Judith & Burton Resnick, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, Cheryl & Philip Milstein family, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Seton J. Melvin and public television viewers.


♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ O'er the land of the free ♪ ♪ And the home ♪ ♪ Of the brave ♪ -The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honoring Alvin Ailey.

-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, and that's his genius.

-♪ Run on for a long time ♪ ♪ Run on for a long time ♪ ♪ Run on for a long time ♪ ♪ Let me tell you God Almighty gonna cut you down ♪ ♪ Go 'n' tell that rider ♪ ♪ Midnight rider ♪ ♪ Gambler, rambler, backbiter ♪ ♪ Tell him God Almighty gonna cut him down ♪ ♪ One of these days, just mark my words ♪ ♪ Think your neighbor has gone to work ♪ ♪ Walk up, knock on the door ♪ ♪ That's all, brother, you'll knock no more ♪ ♪ Go tell that rider ♪ ♪ Midnight rider ♪ ♪ Gambler, rambler, backbiter ♪ ♪ Tell him God Almighty gonna cut him down ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Laughter ] -Rehearsal now beginning.

[ Indistinct conversations ] -Hello!

Come on down!

So, we're embarking on a longer work that delves into aspects of Mr. Ailey's life with the great story-teller, Mr. Rennie Harris.

[ Cheers and applause ] -Hey, what's happenin'? So, yeah.

We're gon' do something. We're gon' create -- Whatever it is, it gotta be good, you know, so... Alright, so Mina and Mille gonna start showing you guys some of the movement and what have you, yeah?

Okay, alright, cool.

-Gonna start with irk and jerk.

-6, 7, 8, it goes uh, huh, ha, ha, yeah, you're pulling that weight over to the left, left and then right, right.

5, 6, 7, 8, huh, huh, ha, ha, 5, 6, 7, 8, huh, huh, ha, ha.

One more time and 7, 8, go... -Robert Battle just called me out of the blue and said, 'I want you to come do a piece about Mr. Ailey for the 60th anniversary of the company.'

-7, 8, go off the floor.

Ha, ha, ha, ah, ah, ha, ha, go [Scatting] 6, 7, and 8.

And step tap, step tap, step tap.

Ha, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

Yeah, yes.

-The history of Ailey?

It's off the scale. You know what I mean?

How do you present something -- It's 60 years.

-I always felt that dance was a natural part of what I wanted to express, that what I can do with my body was a part, a very important part, of me and a way to release some of those things in myself that I had been looking for.

-There he is.

-♪ Where you gonna run to? ♪ ♪ All on that day ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run to the rock, rock, won't you hide me? ♪ ♪ Run to the rock ♪ -Dope. Let's play that again.

[ Keyboard clacks ] -I'm Alvin Ailey. I'm a choreographer.

I create movement, and I'm searching for truth in movement.

-I just sit there and watch to find out what made Mr. Ailey, Mr. Ailey.

-I've choreographed many times now... 4, 5, 1, 2.

4, 5, loose fingers.

♪♪♪ Show what's in your hand, yes.

♪♪♪ Good!

Head accent thing, pom, pom, yes, 4, 5.

-Sunday, January 17, 1988.

Talking with Alvin Ailey.

♪♪♪ Do you feel as though you had to sacrifice anything to stay in dance?


Dance, it's an enormous sacrifice.

I mean, it's a physical sacrifice. Dancing hurts.

You don't make that much money.

I mean, touring 6 months out of the year is disastrous on any kind of personal relations.

It's a tough thing, you know, you have to be possessed to do dance.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ I came to New York City in 1954.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ I was a lithe and springy 24, who loved to dance.

♪♪♪ It was a catch-as-catch-can dancer's life.

Everybody that I could ever dreamed of was here in New York City, and when I got here, I immediately jumped into classes with all of them.

♪♪♪ I studied with Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm.

♪♪♪ But I was the usual rebel.

♪♪♪ And I had my own ideas.

♪♪♪ I had these creative fires bubbling inside.

♪♪♪ Dark, deep things, beautiful things inside me that I'd always been trying to get out.

My blood memories.

[ Children laughing ] The memories of my parents, uncles, and aunts.

Blues and gospel songs that I knew from Texas.

♪♪♪ I was born in the Depression. 1931.

Tough times.

Rural country.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ Listen, here, folks, gonna sing a little song ♪ ♪ Don't get mad, we don't mean no harm ♪ ♪ You know it's tight like that ♪ [ Scatting ] ♪ Oh, it's tight like that ♪ [ Scatting ] ♪ You had me talkin' to you ♪ ♪ I mean it's tight like that ♪ ♪ Had me talkin' to you ♪ ♪ I mean it's tight like that ♪ ♪ I went to see my gal up across the hall ♪ ♪ Found another mule kicking in my stall ♪ ♪ Oh, it's tight like that ♪ ♪ When she whip it, it's too bad Jim ♪ ♪ You know it's tight like that ♪ ♪ I mean it's tight like that ♪ ♪ At the bom bom diddly, got to carry me into town ♪ ♪ You know it's tight like that ♪ [ Scatting ] ♪ Oh, it's tight like that ♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ I cried ♪ -So I made -- It was called 'Blues Suite.'

-♪ Rolled down my cheeks ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ Yes, I cried ♪ ♪ Tear rolled down my cheeks ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ I had to remind my baby ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ What a sweet woman you used to be ♪ ♪♪♪ 'Blues Suite' is a reflection of that time.

The problems, but the romance, that we as a Black people have made something fantastic, the fact that Black people get through.

-♪ Yes, I cried ♪ ♪ Till a tear rolled down my cheeks ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ I had to remind my baby ♪ ♪ What a sweet woman you used to be ♪ ♪♪♪ -4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 3, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 4, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

-Okay, let's try this group and this group here, and still do what you do, alright, 5, 6, 7, 8 and -- -2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 1.

-Mr. Ailey talked about blood memories.

What his parents went through, his parents' parents went through, what his folk went through.

And that was a major key for me.

-6, 7, 8, and.

-2, 3, 4.


That was the anchor.

-4, 6, 8, and 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 1.

♪♪♪ -♪ It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing ♪ ♪♪♪ -I moved to Los Angeles when I was 12 at the beginning of World War II.

When I was 14, I discovered the theater, where I first saw the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ And here was a new world.

♪♪♪ It became my ritual then to come downtown.

♪♪♪ And I saw everything that came along.

♪♪♪ But there was nobody Black, nobody to model oneself after.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ And then one day, I saw Katherine Dunham.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -[ Shouting indistinctly ] -I couldn't believe that here are Black people on a legitimate stage.

♪♪♪ I was just taken into another realm.

♪♪♪ Here was this unbelievable creature.

♪♪♪ And male dancers who were just superb.

♪♪♪ The jumps, the agility, the sensuality of what they did blew me away.

♪♪♪ And the material.

What she was doing was Afro-Caribbean.

It was blues. It was spirituals.

And it touched something Texas in me.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Dance had started to pull at me.

I remember bouncing around on the grass and making up steps.

♪♪♪ But my gym teacher decided that I should be on the football team.

So he made me a right tackle.

And I said, 'Coach, you know, I have these people running and knocking me down.

This is not gonna work.'

He said, 'What's wrong with you? You some kind of sissy?'

and I wanted to say, 'Yes!'

[ Laughs ] ♪♪♪ -I saw Alvin in the gymnastics class.

They had free exercises, you know.

It was all slow-motion.

It was more like dancing, actually.

And he was beautiful.

But he didn't dare let anybody know he wanted to be a dancer, because he would be teased or humiliated.

♪♪♪ But I told him, 'You ought to be a dancer.'

♪♪♪ -Alvin was this kid who was handsome.

He was charismatic.

We became fast friends.

We went to parties together.

We were always in each other's company.

♪♪♪ And then realizing that we both had an interest in dance.

♪♪♪ That propelled me to follow him to the Horton school to watch his class with Carmen.

And you walked through those doors, it's like you were going into a different world.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Lester induced us to search.

And Alvin did.

He went to his resources.

He drew on his experiences.

And that was his beginning.

♪♪♪ -♪ Go, I gotta let it go ♪ ♪♪♪ -I see the dancer as the physical historian.

The dancer holds the information from the past, the present, and the future.

♪♪♪ Why a particular movement was relevant or important, why it was valued in my community.

♪♪♪ -♪ Go, I gotta let it go ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ Go, I gotta let it go ♪ -They have this information stored in their body.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -When the Lord gets ready, child, you got to move.

When the Lord gets ready, you got to move.

You got to move. You got to move.

♪♪♪ -Every Sunday, we were at church.

♪♪♪ Praise God to the almighty.

♪♪♪ Our beautiful Black songs from the churches.

The joy of these people, of my aunts and uncles exploding in the church is something that was always with me.

I remember there was this procession of people all in white.

♪♪♪ They sang 'Wade in the Water.'

-♪ Wade in the water ♪ -I came up with a piece, an evening-long saga of the Black experience.

-♪ I've been 'buked ♪ ♪ And I've been scorned ♪ ♪ Yes, I've been 'buked ♪ And I've been scorned ♪ ♪ Children ♪ ♪ I've been 'buked ♪ ♪ And I've been scorned ♪ ♪ I've been talked about ♪ ♪ Show's you're born ♪ ♪ There is trouble all over this world ♪ ♪ Yes, there is trouble all over this world ♪ ♪ Children ♪ ♪ I've been 'buked ♪ ♪ And I've been scorned ♪ ♪ I've been talked about ♪ ♪ Show's you're ♪ ♪ Born ♪ -I was moved to tears seeing 'Revelations.'

I was studying ballet.

I was studying modern -- modern dance, and this was more of a reenactment of life.

-♪ Oh, fix me, Jesus ♪ ♪ Oh, fix me, Jesus ♪ ♪ Oh, fix me, God ♪ ♪ Fix me, Jesus, fix me ♪ -♪ Fix me ♪ -Here was something where these were human beings, and they were dancing with joy and passion and anger and sorrow.

I thought to myself, 'Wow, this is what I want to do.'

-♪ Oh, sinner man ♪ ♪ Where you gonna run to? ♪ ♪ All on that day ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run to the rock, rock, won't you hide me? ♪ ♪ Run to the rock, rock, won't you hide me? ♪ ♪ Run to the rock, rock, won't you hide me? ♪ ♪ All on that day ♪ -♪ Run ♪ -♪ Run, run, run ♪ -♪ The Lord said, sinner man, the rock will be melting ♪ ♪ The Lord said, sinner man, the rock will be melting ♪ ♪ The Lord said, sinner man ♪ -Alvin entertained my thoughts and dreams that a Black boy could actually dance.

♪♪♪ -♪ Wade in the water, wade in the water ♪ -♪ Wade in the water ♪ ♪ Wade in the water, children ♪ ♪ Wade in the water ♪ ♪ God's a-gonna trouble the water ♪ -♪ Why don't you wade ♪ -♪ Wade in the water ♪ -All the familiarity of my African-American-ness was all identified in 'Revelations.'

The narrative of church, that was important to me.

But what took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence in the dance that I saw, in the dance.

That was the miracle.

-♪ Trouble the water ♪ ♪ God is gonna trouble the water ♪ ♪ God is gonna trouble the water ♪ -That really was the beginning of the company.

-♪ The water ♪ -I came to New York to be in a ballet called 'The Four Marys' with the American Ballet Theater.

♪♪♪ It was a wonderful place to be in, but when 'The Four Marys' was over, there were no more positions.

You were very specially a guest artist there.

You know, you could move into this neighborhood for a minute, but after you finish doing your gig, please move out.

But what was coming next, I did not know.

♪♪♪ -I was sitting on the steps watching an audition.

And Judi was one of many girls doing these bar exercises.

I couldn't help but notice her.

The length of the legs, the feet, that back, those arms, that head.

I said 'Oh, my God. She's here!'

♪♪♪ -I failed that audition so miserably.

I was so terrible.

And I ran up these steps, and there was a man sitting on the steps who I didn't even see who it was.

It was Alvin Ailey.

And he called me and asked me to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Boom.

That was it.

-And 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2. 1.

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2.

♪♪♪ -Dancing with Alvin was hard.

-3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1.

-Wait. -Aah!

-[ Laughs ] -[ Speaks indistinctly ] -Yeah, yeah.

Count 18 and then stop.

-He would give you that look.

'You were wrong. You did wrong.'

This is the look.

[ Chuckles ] And that was Alvin.

♪♪♪ -He would say things famously like, 'Would you do my choreography?'

But he was also terribly encouraging.

The exchanges that all of us had were full of large embraces.

If he was talking to you from 50 feet away, you would feel that embrace.

You would feel that comfort in knowing that you could make an absolute fool of yourself, you know? You would feel safe to extend yourself enough so that you felt free.


I'm sorry, to your left.

I love the idea of people coming and working together.

♪♪♪ I love the idea of the discipline.

♪♪♪ Open but very quickly.

♪♪♪ You and I, as choreographers, start with an empty space and a body or two, and we say 'Carve this space.'

I love creating something where there was nothing before.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ I've been low, I've been high ♪ ♪ I've been sold all my lies ♪ ♪ I've got nothing left to pray ♪ ♪ I've got nothing left to say ♪ -As choreographers, we are the ones that are reaching out.

Mr. Ailey, he used to train moving through spaces and shifting geographies and people.

And we needed that bullet train.

-♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ ♪ I'm a black man in a white world ♪ -I wanted to do a kind of dance that could be done for the man on the streets, the people.

I wanted to show Black people that they could come down to these concert halls, that it was part of their culture being done there, and that it was universal.

♪♪♪ -The upcoming major, major event was like a seven- or nine-week tour of one-nighters throughout the United States, and Alvin was in a frenzied state.

-A friend of mine recommended me as a stage manager to Alvin.

And I said, 'How much do they pay?'

And she said, 'Oh, they don't have any money.'

I said, 'Okay, well, you know, I'll volunteer and see how it goes.'

And right after that, all of us, including Alvin, were on a bus.

-One bus.

Costumes, lighting, everything, one bus.

-The ladder was down the center isle.

The stools for 'Revelations' were underneath.

-The luggage, fans, everything.

We travelled 6, 7 hours a day.

-And you were doing a state a night.

And you drive up, and you get there, and you jump off and rehearse.

♪♪♪ -Perform, find some place to eat after the performance.

-This was before fast food, really, you know?

We were like, 'Truck stops, there we go.'

-Go to bed, get up the next morning.

Same thing all over again in another town.

♪♪♪ [ Applause ] ♪♪♪ -As a multiracial company, I was very concerned about the treatment arriving at a hotel or motel.

I don't want to hear anything about, 'We don't have any rooms.'

-One time in Kirksville, Missouri, this hotel was absolutely dreadful.

After the performance the next day, we passed a Holiday Inn.

I'm wondering, 'Why weren't we in that hotel?'

♪♪♪ -I sent pictures and reviews to the hotels where the company's going so it won't be a surprise when they get there.

I didn't want them to have to go through that.

♪♪♪ -It was whirlwind.

And the tours came in.

[ Man announcing in French ] European tours.


London after that.

-This is our first performance anyway with a new group.

-Are you nervous?

-Uh -- Well, of course not.

[ Laughs ] [ Man speaking foreign language ] -In the studio with me, I have Alvin Ailey, the artistic director of the American Dance Theater.

-Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

-The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most important contemporary dance companies in the world.

[ Applause ] -People were just, 'Oh, my God!'

They'd never seen anything like it.

They loved the company.

They really did.

In Stuttgart, Germany, they wouldn't let us off the stage.

We had to do 80-something bows.

I'd never seen people stand up, take their shoes off, and hit the wall.

They were going to stay there all night if possible.

♪♪♪ -They were wonderful times, because we were kind of a family.

♪♪♪ -We all loved Alvin.

But we weren't around Alvin during the day.

♪♪♪ It was like Alvin was here, the company was here.

♪♪♪ Something was happening with him.

♪♪♪ -One time, I came up onstage, and Alvin came up onstage, and he grabbed me, and he rolled up into the curtain.

The curtain was -- We rolled up -- I said 'Alvin, what are do-- What is wrong with you?

What is wrong with you?' He said, 'I don't know.

I don't know.'

It's like another person inside the person.

It wasn't the Alvin that we see all the time.

-He needed a person that he could talk to, a partner or a someone.

Alvin did not have that.

-He would have relationships but intermittent.

♪♪♪ That kind of one-on-one relationship, he didn't have, except with his mother.

I was an only child also, the same as Alvin.

So I understood that.

♪♪♪ My relationship was always with the company, with the Ailey company.

That became family to me, as it was to Alvin.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ He had this idea and this vision.

Alvin was driven to work.

♪♪♪ -♪ There is a house ♪ ♪ It's been the ruin ♪ [ Crowds chanting indistinctly ] ♪ Of many a girl ♪ ♪ And God, I know I'm one ♪ -We didn't have to go out on the street and protest.

Our protest was on the stage.

-♪ If had listened ♪ ♪ What my mama said ♪ ♪ I'd be at home today ♪ -This was Alvin's part.

This was what he took up as his crusade.

-♪ But being young ♪ ♪ And foolish ♪ ♪♪♪ -This was our march to freedom.

-♪ New Orleans ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -The death of Fred Hampton.

The police had just broken into his apartment in the middle of the night and shot him point-blank range.

♪♪♪ -There was a photograph in the newspaper of this young, Black man in this tiny room like a rat with all these police holes around him.

♪♪♪ -I mean, I can't get over that. I'm a Black man living in this, you know what I mean?

-'Masekela' came from a very deep feeling of, you know, rage and anger, about the situation.


♪♪♪ Nice. Stop the music, would you?

Yeah. [ Music stops ] Now let's try the -- I want to feel like you're in jail, like you're behind bars.

And I want to feel all the anger and the cutting.

I want to feel like you're being pressed down when you take the arabesque.

I want to feel a sense of cursing at the outside world.

Let's try it again.

Now you just go through on the floor!

It's -- Yes.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Choreography was his catharsis.

And a lot of times I felt that even the woman in the black dress was really him.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -The character he created on me dies in the arms of the patron.

And Alvin's saying, 'Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.'

There was deadly silence.

-Thank you.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

-[Bleep] it, you know?

You came here to be entertained.

But I have to tell my truth.

♪♪♪ -Shh.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -To me, it's not back then.

Everything I'm talking about is actually happening today.

♪♪♪ I'm still feeling the same way, as anyone would feel if you felt like you were unwanted as a culture.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Did Mama have something to do with your going into dance, or did she support this?

-When the dance bug bit me, she said, 'You go and do whatever you want to do.'

-You enjoy seeing his company?

-Oh, boy, it's the biggest thrill of my life.

And he still has farther to go, so that's why he's just keeping on.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Mrs. Cooper worked in somebody's house, cleaning, and decided to go to Los Angeles to make life for him.

You know, that -- Alvin knows that.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ Been on a train ♪ -The Black women who would encourage you... -♪ The whistle blow ♪ -...who would be there always... -♪ Been on a train north ♪ -...who were so supportive, I mean, that you could not fail.

-♪ The whistle blow ♪ ♪ I saw a man ♪ ♪♪♪ -I'd get these images.

♪♪♪ -♪ Die slow ♪ -He would say things like, 'You're scrubbing floors.'

♪♪♪ 'You're attending a baby. You're a queen.'

-♪ And I'm never gonna be the same ♪ ♪♪♪ -I had no inclination that this was dedicated to all Black women, especially our mothers, and that this was a birthday gift to his mom.

-♪ Home ♪ -But you could hear the importance in the music.

-♪ Gonna soothe my pain ♪ -The angst in her voice.

-♪ No ♪ ♪ No ♪ ♪ Damn you, mister ♪ ♪ And I dragged him out the door ♪ ♪ No, no ♪ ♪ Damn you, mister, and I dragged him out the door ♪ -And you just survive inside of what he's giving you and what the music is telling you, you know? You live in those moments.

♪♪♪ ♪ I suspect there's a train going north ♪ ♪ In a month or two ♪ ♪ I still hear his words he said ♪ -Identity was a strong message.

Being able to say through the choreography, 'I am,' was a very, very important theme that ran through the dances.

'I am.'

-♪ There's nothing left to say or do ♪ -Stand in your own being no matter what.

It's very important to have that, because it transcends dance, and it opens the person to a new realization or consciousness of who they are and how to be who they are.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ I wanna go where the north wind blows ♪ -♪ Wind blows, wind blows ♪ -That whole last section, I didn't know how I did it.

'Cause I couldn't feel anything from here down.

I mean, it was like okay, I know there's something there holding me up and just plow on through.

-♪ Ain't no time to be afraid ♪ -♪ Yeah, yeah, mother, save your child ♪ -And when it comes to that last step, you dig down in there like you have never dug before.

-♪ In the sky, in the sky ♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ I want the clouds over my head ♪ -♪ Over my head, over my head ♪ -♪ I don't want no store-bought bed, yeah ♪ -♪ Store-bought bed, store-bought bed ♪ -No matter what others may think of you... -♪ Till I'm dead, till I'm dead ♪ -...this is who you are.

-♪ Mother, mother, mother, mother, save your child ♪ -How important is that to you to be able to say through your movement, through your being, 'I am.'

[ Cheers and applause ] Thunderous applause.

Alvin stood right next to me.

The curtain had been down for a little bit, and people were still applauding.

I'm, like, dripping in sweat, I'm going, like, 'Oh, wow, phew, got through that one.'

And he says to me, 'Now what?'

Like what is going to do next.

What next?

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -You have the anxiety of creating.

You have the euphoria of a creation being successful.

♪♪♪ Alvin, I think he took on too much.

-Some say the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the most innovative dance company in the world.

Its popularity and dazzling performances have been experienced by 10 million people, 43 states, 44 countries, on 6 continents.

Our guest is the world renowned choreographer and artistic director Alvin Ailey.

Good to have you here.

-Thank you, Dennis. It's nice to be here.

[ Speaking foreign language ] -Alvin Ailey, director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who has just returned from a very successful tour in the Soviet Union.

-We are adding Mr. Ailey's piece.

-Every fall, every springtime, every season, there you are, at the mill, grinding it out.

♪♪♪ -The problem is that if you're a Black anything in this country, people want to put you into a bag.

People sometimes say, 'Well, you know, why is he doing that now?

Why can't he stick to the blues and to the spirituals?'

I'm also a 20th century American, and I respond to Bach and Ellington and Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber, and why shouldn't I?

♪♪♪ So I don't like to be pinned down as a choreographer.

♪♪♪ -Oftentimes, isolated Black creators are used.

Everybody used him as, 'See?

This is the progress we're making.

See? We're not racist.

We have Alvin Ailey.'

♪♪♪ -When you were making 'Revelations,' did you know that you'd be doing it forever?

-[ Chuckling ] No.

-Does it bother you?

-In a way, it does, isn't that strange?

Maybe I can't -- Every time I see 'Revelations' now, after all these years, man, since 1960 -- I mean, I saw it in Atlanta the other night, and everybody had come to see 'Revelations,' and it still worked.

♪♪♪ -They wanted something that they could feel uplifted by.

What about the troubled artist, who is oftentimes turned in and barbed, who is confused and looking for form?

Looking for form.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Let's go to the ballet.

♪♪♪ -You have this creature, this wounded animal.

She's angry at herself.

She's angry probably at her creative forces -- like all creatives, not doing exactly with herself what she wanted to do.

She's angry at the world that allowed this thing to happen to her, whatever it is.

She's angry at the weakness in herself.

♪♪♪ -This was a very vulnerable thing to witness.

But I saw him really trying to go in search of, I believe, what had probably made him a choreographer.

He wanted a poetry.

♪♪♪ -Creation is a very long and lonely place, lonely in the fact that nobody can help you.

♪♪♪ He was possessed, and he had to serve that god.

♪♪♪ -Alvin was very private.

♪♪♪ I worked with him long time, and he invited me to his house only once.

He wanted to open up the door for me to more close to him.

Somehow I feel I wanted him to be up, to put on a pedestal, you know.

I mean, I wanted him to be there.

It's not here with me.

♪♪♪ -Sometimes your name becomes bigger than yourself.

'Alvin Ailey.'

Do you really know who that is or what it is?

♪♪♪ You see a name, but I don't see a man.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -He was working at a feverish pitch.

This stream of consciousness.

♪♪♪ He was totally immersed.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I -- ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -He was exhausted from trying to meet the demands of the board, the community, everything.

'Oh, do another ballet. Oh, do this.

Oh, do that.'

[ Heartbeat ] -He talked to me at times about the company not being the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

It could be the American Dance Theater.

And I remember saying to him, 'What are you talking about?

Where are going?'

♪♪♪ -One day, my telephone rang.

A voice said, 'You know, Alvin is running around, throwing things around, and everybody has cleared out of the office.'

♪♪♪ Alvin pushed the door open.

He just looked at me, a look that I had never seen from him before.

I said, 'Alvin, what do you want me to do?'

So he said, 'All I want you to do is take care of the company.'

So I said, 'Well, I am always going to do just that.

You don't have to worry about it.'

Then he disappeared.

♪♪♪ Alvin's not well.

♪♪♪ [ Siren wails ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I believe that there is always something, one's gift, one's genius, separates one from his colleagues, his community.

I believe that he had that demon, that demon that says that, 'If I have gotten this far, it's because I have pulled one over on somebody and that, any day now, I'm going to be found out.'

I think it's kind of something like a self-loathing that comes with not feeling worthy, even though you've proven it.

If you look at 'Revelations,' it's one of the great dances of the 20th century.

♪♪♪ -Who could love him, or were they loving what he represented -- his gift, his fame, what-have-you?

♪♪♪ Who could love him?

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -He made a nice duet for me.

♪♪♪ It was so much fun.

I think he discovered a different way.

It's not new Alvin, but something like winter passed, you know?

Took off the jacket.

♪♪♪ -See, if I had known about this television thing, I would have done my hair like yours, Rodney.

[ Laughter ] Would've been up till 5:00 in the morning twisting and turning.

-Well, I just wash it. I don't do anything to it.

-You don't do anything to it? And you did it yourself?

-I don't do anything. I just don't comb it.

-No, but, I mean, how did it get that way?

-I just -- -You twisted it? -No.

-Rodney, now, no, no, no.

You're among friends.

♪♪♪ -It was a sense of renewal.

The only direction to go is forward into the future.

♪♪♪ -What are the aims and goals of the American Dance Theater?

-To provide a place of beauty and excitement, a place for other choreographers to experiment, to provide a place where people can come and feel like they can add themselves and then reap the benefits of what they put in.

♪♪♪ I want it to be easier than it was for me.

♪♪♪ -I had been invited to come and make a work for the Ailey Company.

Around this time, Arnie Zane, my companion, and I were already on the cover of Many people were saying we were the flavor of the month of the downtown avant-garde dance.

More than anything, I think he wanted to stay in touch with new developments in the field, and I'm proud to say he took me seriously in that regard.

-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.'

[ Indistinct conversations ] -Let's have you here, Michael.

You here. You're facing this way.

Jackie, bring you here, okay.

So, here's the deal. You guys are blades of grass.

You're Black folk who have been murdered.

You become part of the soil, and then the gatherers come and step over you, and they start gathering the souls, right?

Gathering them back so they can regenerate.

Got me? Alright, so that's what's happening.

So -- And so this is slow -- Right, right.


Every time a dancer walks in, there's another piece of him being resurrected.

♪♪♪ Mr. Ailey was just watching this whole cycle happening and helping to guide and helping to push through.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I was walking across 57th Street, and I saw Alvin.

I said, 'Hi, Alvin. How's everything?'

He said, 'It's alright, it's alright.'

But he didn't speak about anything.

It was like, that's all. I said, 'Well, okay.

I hope to see you.

I'll come to the season,' like that.

He just looked thinner to me and a little drawn.

He wasn't reacting in a way that I was used to.

-People's appearances were changing.

They were getting thinner, and -- And they were dying around you.

And I guess all you could hope for -- that it wasn't you.

And you prayed that it wasn't anybody close to you.

♪♪♪ -Alvin wanted me to meet him at this restaurant.

We were picking over stuff, you know, this food that I wasn't eating, that he wasn't eating.

Both of us knew what we were there for.

♪♪♪ But he had to declare it anyway.

He said, 'Would you take over the company?'

♪♪♪ I had been told ahead of time that he was very ill.

♪♪♪ At that time, people were retreating from saying anything about AIDS-related illnesses.

♪♪♪ -There were probably people he would imagine they would react disfavorably to having 'this guilty disease.'

This disease is, in some people's minds, 'You get what you deserve.

And we have loved you all these years and given you this platform to go out and do that dancing, and then, look at your dirty life.'

And as we used to hear when I was as a child, 'What's done in the dark will come to the light.'

And I'm purposely taking on the voice of a Southern Baptist, because I'm sure, be that his mother, be that many people around him, there was this feeling that, as I say, men are men on the Ailey stage and women are women on the Ailey stage, and they are exemplary, and they are the survivors of racism and slavery, and they are beautiful, and they are strong, and they will live forever and leap higher and higher, and you're telling me that they have sex?

And they have sex that could kill them?

Are you telling me Mr. Ailey himself?

Oh, that's too much. That's too much.

We have to edit that out of the history.

And he participated in the editing of it.

He was alone.

What community of gay people was he with that could say, 'Alvin, this is happening to us'? ♪♪♪ -When he got ill, they put a couch in the studio.

He wasn't really working with us anymore.

He couldn't. But he wanted to be around us.

So as opposed to laying at home, he would just lay on the couch.

He would just kind of lounge around and just be with us.

♪♪♪ There's a denial that you want to have about your friend.

You always want to think there could be a miracle.

'Cause miracles do happen.

Some people do get better.

People do heal.

So it is possible.

♪♪♪ It could happen. He could pull through this.

Miracles do happen.

♪♪♪ -Hey, Alvin, what's up?

Now, listen here. You gotta hurry up and get better.

I'm waitin' on you, because, you know, I'm trying to do this, but I need to be inspired.

I need your inspiration, brother.

You got to get out here, you understand what I'm saying?

-Hi! We miss you!

Hope you're feeling better!

-We want you to get better so you can come back and reprimand us again.

[ Laughs ] [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪♪ -[ Laughing ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I remember we were opening on December the 3rd, I think.

And Alvin died on the 1st.

And I thought, 'Oh, God.

I wish he'd been able to come to this opening.'

But we put on a -- Oh.

But I called George Faison.

I said, 'George --' [ Sighs ] It moved me a great deal.

I said, 'We've got to celebrate Alvin.'

And he put together a wonderful performance.

And at the end, after 'Revelations' and bows, all of a sudden, I had let down a big picture of Alvin.

It was absolute quiet in the theater.

[ Voice breaking ] And the entire theater rose at once and just quietly stood there.

And the dancers had been given flowers, and they all turned and put them in front of Alvin's picture.

And we brought the curtain down... ...with a performance the next night.

We kept going.

[ Chuckles ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -[ Echoing ] Mr. Ailey?

♪♪♪ Mr. Ailey!

-You see in films that people do [Breathes deeply] And there's this dramatic death rattle, You know, it's like [Exhales shakily] like this.

Alvin breathed in and never breathed out.

That was it.

We're his breath out.

We are his breath out. We are.

Yeah? So that's what we're floating on.

That's what we're living on, that [Exhales deeply] -♪ Alive ♪ ♪ I know he is ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ Alive ♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ He is risen ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ He's alive ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ Alive, alive, alive, alive ♪ ♪ Alive, alive, alive, alive, alive ♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ I am free ♪ -♪ I am free ♪ -♪ Free indeed ♪ -♪ Oh, free indeed ♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ Oh, hallelujah ♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ Hallelujah ♪ -♪ It's a new life for me, yeah ♪ ♪ It's a new life for me, yeah ♪ ♪ It's a new dawn, it's a new day ♪ ♪ It's a new life for me, yeah ♪ ♪ It's a new dawn, it's a new day ♪ ♪ It's a new life for me ♪ ♪ Ooh ♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -♪ If you know, if you know, if you know he's alive ♪ ♪ I can feel it, yes, I know it ♪ ♪ Can you feel it? Yes, I feel it ♪ ♪ He's alive, yeah ♪


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.