In conversation with Ryon Horne, co-director of Gerard Alexander documentary ‘The Dancer’

Co-director Ryon Horne ( via AJC’s Kent D. Johnson)

When Ryon Horne first discussed making a documentary about Gerard Alexander, he didn’t realize how much he would have in common with the man. 

Alexander was once a dancing prodigy who starred in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” music video and performed with professional dance companies across the world. He was often compared to Mikhail Baryshnikov, arguably the most famous ballet dancer of the last century. 

He was also homeless for the last years of his life, living on the streets of Atlanta. He was killed in April of 2022. The case has not been solved. 

Horne and his brother, Tyson Horne, are the directors of a new documentary for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called “The Dancer,” which tells the story of Alexander’s life. The Horne brothers were born in Paterson, NJ, which is the same town where Alexander was born. Pulling up the apartment building that Alexander lived in as a child, Tyson Horne had a jarring experience. 

“The buildings that Gerard lived in, there’s really no other buildings like that in Paterson,” Ryan Horne recalled. “Tyson is looking at his phone, then he looks up … something hit him. And he goes, yo man – I used to live here with mom and dad.” 

Horne said over the course of filming the movie, there were a few moments like this. In some ways, it seems like the brothers were meant to be the ones to help tell this story, in all its beauty and tragedy. 

“I just hope we did Gerard proud by showing his good life. Of course you always gotta show both sides of a life,” Horne said. “But I hope we paid tribute to him as best as we could.” 

The documentary is now available on the AJC’s website, accompanied by a two-part article written by Matt Kempner. Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Horne about making the movie. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you first hear about Gerard Alexander?

Ryon Horne: I was on my way to a dentist’s appointment, and I had a meeting come up about the story. Matt Kempner, the writer [of the AJC print story] and his editor Colleen McMillar … they had a meeting with me and my manager Sandra Brown, just to talk about the story, talk about what is possible as far as a visual element to this presentation of Gerard Alexander. 

When Matt gave the pitch and told us what he had found out, a couple of things stood out immediately. One was Michael Jackson [laughs]. It was like, what? This guy danced next to Michael Jackson? I knew exactly who he was when Matt said – in the Michael Jackson video, he has the Kangol, and he jumps across the screen. I knew exactly who he was, because I watched that video a million times as a kid. 

The craziest thing that kind of stood out to me were two places that Gerard lived. One was Paterson, NJ. That’s where me and my brothers were born, so that was very interesting. Paterson is not a very big city. It’s just a town. You know, Gerard wasn’t that much older than my oldest brother Tyson, who’s co-director. So that stood out. I was like, man – I wonder if my family knew his family. 

The other part was him living in Lakeland, Fla. where I pretty much spent every single summer because my grandmother was born and died there. Those things stood out to me, so I was like, I want to know more about this guy.  From that moment on, I just knew that we were going to try. I knew it was gonna be hard, because someone with his past, and how he died, and being homeless for so long, I wasn’t sure there was going to be a whole lot of access to things. We didn’t know what we were going to find. 

You mentioned sitting down and figuring out how to do this visually – and I think someone even says this at the beginning of the documentary, talking about the tension between how beautiful he was dancing and the tragedy or uglier parts of his life – how did you go about deciding how to meld those two things?

Horne: The very first thing that we shot for this was going to the encampments. We went with Tracy Woodard [with Intown Cares], and the very first thing that we shot was walking across the street with her, and we go down to the encampment. 

You go under these trees and then all of a sudden this open world is exposed to you. There’s a world that you don’t know exists. So, I see the encampment under these beautiful trees, and you hear the sounds of the water, and you see the sun is shining through. But then on the bottom part, you see the trash, and the tents … you see the not so pleasant parts of this. 

We were walking through, and Tracy Woodard – who comes to these areas quite often to check on people, to help folks who are down there, and also give food every now and then – she takes us over there and we find [a man who stays in the encampments] who knew Gerard. One of the things he says is … Gerard would dance by the beach. We were like, the beach? What do you mean? He said the beach, right there, and he pointed. We see beach sand right next to this tent.

When I saw that, it was like this beautiful tragedy. That was the first thing that came to my brain – the beauty of this life and the tragedy. He found beauty in tragedy, you know? That was what stood out to me when we first started shooting. 

You mentioned going down to those encampments and figuring out how to get access. I’m sure Tracy helped a lot with that, but I was wondering what that process was like? 

Horne: Matt Kempner was the one who got all the access, who basically interviewed everyone that would know anything about Gerard. He spoke to people who knew Gerard when he was a kid, in elementary school. He spoke to people who knew Gerard when he was an aspiring dancer. When he was achieved, and in his prime. He spoke to people who knew Gerard when he was on the streets. So all of those interviews came through Matt Kempner and his work as he worked on the story.

For the documentary, we were open to speak to anybody who was willing to speak to us on camera. And there weren’t very many, as you can see. I mean, it would have been a much longer documentary. There weren’t a lot of people who wanted to speak on camera for a couple of reasons, it seemed. One, you know, it’s just really hard for them to relive those moments. They were okay talking to Matt on the phone or something like that. But, you know, to speak in front of the camera is really difficult.

For those people who did speak on camera, how was the experience being there? You know, considering where he was at the end of his life, I’m interested in how much contact they had had with him at that point. All those different moving parts must have been pretty heavy in the room. 

Horne: It was all very heavy for everyone we spoke to. For folks like [choreographer] George Faison and [Gerard’s mentor and teacher] Alfred Gallman, they probably lost contact with Gerard very early on, like years ago. Even for Gerard’s former partners, [it was the] same. With Ferdinand [De Jesus], they stopped speaking after they stopped dating for a while. And James Rosheger, his more recent former partner, he actually spoke about how – and this is the written story – he spoke about how he saw Gerard while he was living on the streets, but he would never talk about his situation. Gerard would never say, hey I don’t have a place to live. He stayed away from it. He would be very quiet. He didn’t want him to know where he was. James would try to help, and try to offer some help, stuff like that, and see where he was. But Gerard just kept it very secretive and very quiet. It seemed like he tried not to be a burden to people. James talks about that a lot – you know, he met him at Lindbergh Station one time and offered to help. It didn’t go so well, but it started going well once he started talking about dance again. 

For a lot of them, it was really hard. I feel a lot of people who see this who knew Gerard might have wished that they could have done more, just like anybody does. I should have done this, I should have done that – everybody does that when someone’s gone. But sometimes, you really can’t. I think one of the biggest things that touched me the most was even for Tracy, who did try a lot towards the end, she realized – there was really nothing we could do. 

There’s no real happy ending to this story. When you’re making a film and going into something like this knowing there’s no happy ending, how do you work with that as far as how you want people to feel when they leave this film?

Horne: I know for us, right from the onset we understood there was no happy ending. There were no real big leads on his death. It was really hard to decipher, how do you leave an audience with some type of hope or anything? Sometimes, in life, there are stories where they don’t end that well. You know, they don’t end with a happy ending, or end with the greatest resolution. I was really content with that. My brother Tyson, he was really content with that. We just wanted to tell a story. With that in mind, knowing there was no perfect ending, I think the way that we ended it – by really trying to honor Gerard and his beauty – was the only way that we could see how we could give some type of beauty back, to show just how good this guy was. That was the only way that we could really come up with. In one sense, yeah it was very sad, but look how beautiful this guy is.

The archival footage in the film is great. How did you go about finding that?

Horne: Again, that was Matt Kempner. I remember we were in a meeting, and we didn’t have any footage yet. We knew that it was coming, and we had spoke to people who had it, you know, different companies and stuff. There were a couple of companies that were like, we don’t know if we want to allow you to use this film.

I just remember being in the meeting, and  it was like this sense of – man, if we don’t have any footage of him dancing, we don’t know that we really have a story. It’s going to be really hard to sell the fact that this guy was really good if you can’t show how good he is. That was one of the concerns, but ultimately Matt was very confident that he could get the footage. And he did – he came through big time. 

Going back to the interviews, is there anything that you learned about Gerard you found particularly poignant, or anything that surprised you?

Horne: I don’t know that there was anything that was really eye-opening, or anything. One thing that was very cool to know, or to learn, was that Gerard was the same person through and through. Everyone pretty much said the same thing about him, as far as being the type of person he was. That was really comforting to know that even in his low times, he was still the same person. 

Was there anything that was left on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have included?

Horne: I just wish we had more footage of him. I just wanted to see more of him or of his dancing. He was very photogenic, obviously, and he was very good. I wish we had more footage of him as a kid, showing how much of a prodigy he was considered.

Tyson, he wanted to show just the lifestyle that Gerard came up in, the kind of glamour lifestyle. He came up during the time of Studio 54, and if you know anything about that it was a very glitzy and very extravagant time. There was a story from Ferdinand … he and Gerard had a pretty toxic relationship. He was very open about that. There was one time they were arguing, and Gerard was supposedly at George Faison’s house – there was a party going on, right? That house is like an old fire station turned into a dance studio and theatre. People would show up at this place all the time after premieres – anybody, stars and stuff like that. [Ferdinand] talks about going in and saying, I know Gerard is in there! Tell him to come out, tell him to come out! And then he looks, and he says – hold up, is that Maya Angelou? [Laughs] People like Maya Angelou would be at this house. That was the type of people he would be around all the time, these stars and celebrities. I wish we were able to show more of that, just how he was really in that world and really of that time, because of how good he was.


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