LHS students’ documentary on dancer Alvin Ailey showcased by Smithsonian museum

photo by: Associated Press

A January 1987 photo of choreographer Alvin Ailey.

A short documentary film by Lawrence High School students focusing on the life and resilience of dancer Alvin Ailey reached the national stage this week.

Liliana Christensen and Zora Lotton-Barker, who will be seniors at LHS this coming fall, told the Journal-World Thursday they were excited that their film, “Alvin Ailey: Breaking Barriers in American Dance,” was one of 35 films from across the country selected to be showcased by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian Learning Lab.

The 10-minute documentary explains the life of Ailey, an African-American man originally from Texas, and how he overcame racism to become an accomplished, celebrated dancer and choreographer. The film, which was the students’ submission for the annual National History Day competition, is streaming on the Smithsonian website until June 24, according to a National History Day news release.

Valerie Schrag, AP U.S. History teacher at LHS, said the students will learn this weekend if their submission will win any National History Day competition awards. But Lotton-Barker said they aren’t worried about winning any awards because they are just happy to share the story of a man who has done so much for society, which included providing arts education and student enrichment programs and promoting racial integration.

“It doesn’t necessarily matter how far we get in the competition,” Lotton-Barker said. “Our biggest goal is to share his story. Through doing the research, we realized how important it is. There’s so much that he’s still doing after his death to lift up communities all over America.”

“The Smithsonian’s documentary showcase gives us a platform for that to spread far and wide,” Christensen added.

Ailey was born into the segregated south in 1931, but he eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he would begin pursuing a dance career, according to the students’ film. Ailey was able to become successful despite prevalent racism and the stigma regarding male dancers at the time. Although there were few places for an African-American man to be a dancer in mid-20th century America, Ailey went on to have a historic career as a dancer and choreographer. He later died in New York City in 1989.

What stuck out to Christensen and Lotton-Barker during their research on the Ailey’s life was how his mission to help create a racially integrated America did not waiver throughout his career.

“It never changed. He remained the same person throughout his success,” Lotton-Barker said. “And he didn’t see it as necessarily his success, but as a way to make change in America. That was his biggest goal overall.”

Lotton-Barker said she and Christensen chose Ailey as a documentary subject because they knew his life would be a topic that would keep their interest as they dove deep into research. They are both interested in dance and had previously seen performances by his dance company, she said.

Their research for the film was quite thorough. Christensen said one of the best sources was Ailey’s own writing, as they had the ability to read through his personal papers that are stored at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Mo.

“We could go and see his actual handwriting and his choreography notes, which was really awesome,” Christensen said.

For the project, they had the choice of several mediums through which to share the story. They said they chose documentary film because they could use photos and film footage of Ailey and his dance routines, which provides an accurate showing of who he was while also providing real examples of his work. The film also extensively quotes Ailey from his papers, which Lotton-Barker’s father read for the film.

“That was our way to allow (Ailey) propel the story, rather than us explaining the story,” Lotton-Barker said. “It was really important for us to make it as much of him as possible.”

Schrag said she was impressed with Christensen and Lotton-Barker’s film. While they worked on the project, Schrag said she could see them recount the many different sources they researched, showing they knew the topic “inside and out.”

“As a teacher, it’s incredible to see students pursue a passion of theirs,” Schrag said. “Then to be able to see them get this national recognition is just an incredible affirmation of who they are as historians and human beings.”

Those interested in viewing the documentary film can find it on the Smithsonian website, s.si.edu/NHDShowcase2020.

Alvin Ailey: Breaking Barriers in American Dance

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