At the start of “Ailey” — the brand new documentary about iconic choreographer Alvin Ailey, which opens in New York on Friday — greatness acknowledges greatness when Cicely Tyson calls him “the Pied Piper of modern dance” at his 1988 Kennedy Center Honors induction.
And for this grasp of motion — who based the internationally famend Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater firm in New York in 1958 — it was all about bringing black individuals to the historically white world of dance.
“I wanted it to be the kind of dancing that could be done for the man on the street, for the people,” Ailey says in audio recordings of interviews carried out from 1988 to 1989, when he died from AIDS-related issues at 58. “I wanted to show the black people that they could come down to these concert halls, that it was part of their culture that was being done there. And that it was universal.”
Born in rural Texas in 1931, Ailey began choosing cotton when he was about 4. “I mean, if you were black, you were nothing,” he says.
Still, he discovered early inspiration within the black pleasure on the home events and honky-tonks he would go to as a baby. “Those things stayed with me,” he says of the African-American expertise that led to items reminiscent of “Blues Suite” in 1958 and “Revelations” in 1960.
But it was after he moved to Los Angeles originally of World War II that a younger Ailey found his true muse. “I saw Katherine Dunham,” says Ailey of his life-changing theater expertise watching the African-American dancer and choreographer. “I couldn’t believe that there were black people on a legitimate stage. I was just taken into another world.”
Then Ailey pirouetted to New York in 1954 and started learning with the likes of Martha Graham. “But I was the usual rebel,” he says within the doc, “and I had my own ideas.”
Those concepts led him to launch his personal firm — in addition to the careers of such black dance legends as Judith Jamison, who would take over for Ailey after his demise; and George Faison, who became the primary African-American to win a Best Choreography Tony for “The Wiz” in 1975.
But Ailey may very well be a powerful taskmaster. “He would say things famously like, ‘Would you do my choreography?’ ” says Jamison within the documentary. “But he was also terribly encouraging.”
Ailey’s relentless creativity, although, bordered on obsessive. “He was possessed,” says Faison. “And he had to serve that God.”
The movie’s director Jamila Wignot needed to offer a close-up to that dedication. “It was a kind of freedom of voice that he was able to have onstage that was different than [in] his life,” she advised The Post.
Despite his “generosity of spirit” as an artist, Wignot stated there was an “incredible privacy” about Ailey, who was homosexual. “That is not something that he was public about with the larger world,” she stated. “There’s this interesting tension around him not being able to develop a kind of life outside of the world of dance … And so he gave everything of himself to his craft.”
But, Wignot added, “There was a price to be paid for that,” with all the stress contributing to Ailey having a breakdown in 1980. He was dedicated to a psychological establishment and diagnosed as bipolar.
Even when he was very in poor health with AIDS and about to take his last bow, Ailey’s “happiest place” — as Wignot put it — remained within the dance studio.
“When he got ill, they put a couch in the studio,” says Sarita Allen, a former Alvin Ailey dancer. “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 … and just be with us.”