Ailey: Film Review
On Ailey the moving body serves as a canvas. Crooked arms, swaying heads, rolling torsos, and feet hitting the floor evoke sources of emotion: pain, lust, sadness, and joy. Directed by Jamila Wignot, this stunning documentary chronicles the rich life of Alvin Ailey, the American dance giant, choreographer, and founder of the groundbreaking Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Wignot handles the details of the legend’s tumultuous biography with great care, honoring his talents and acknowledging the cost they caused him. But perhaps the greatest gift from this beautiful, well-conceived doctor lies in her appreciation of the divinity of dance.
Ailey, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, opens with a powerful clip of the late actress Cicely Tyson at a Kennedy Center tribute to Ailey in 1988. “Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of the stuff. Hers is a choreography of the heart, ”Tyson begins, his eyes briefly meeting Ailey’s. “Alvin Ailey is black and he is universal”.
A delicate portrait of a legendary figure.
The camera moves on to a performance: a group of women, in matching mustard yellow outfits, sit in evenly spaced chairs with their backs to the audience. When the musical rhythm drops, they quickly wave their mustard yellow fans and turn around before moving their bodies left and right. The camera focuses on Ailey, sitting on the balcony, a stoic look on her face. Looking solemnly at the dancers, at that moment he resembles a king at court.
Wignot’s documentary explores the legacy of Ailey’s kingdom through two main threads. The first takes place sometime in 2018, when a group of dancers rehearse under the watchful eyes of Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey’s artistic director, and choreographer Rennie Harris. They are preparing an article about the life of Ailey (“Lazarus”) related to the 60th anniversary of the company. The importance of the task, the weight of representing such a prodigious legacy, is in the air. “Ailey’s story is off the scale,” says Harris. “How do you present something like 60 years?”
The second thread of the documentary attempts to map the lives of the discipline’s greatest minds, using footage and interviews with Ailey’s colleagues and friends, such as choreographer Bill T. Jones and dancer Judith Jamison. The goal here is to separate the man from the legend and take another step toward understanding his genius. His intimate stories reveal a man whose generosity knew no bounds, whose obsession with his trade turned punishing, and who tragically could not accept the fruits of his labor.
Born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey was incredibly close to her mother, never meeting her father, and found herself picking cotton when she was just 4 years old. The language Ailey uses to describe her early life is as poetic as her choreography. “I remember being glued to my mother’s hip, splashing across the ground, branches cutting against a child’s body,” he says in a clip. “I remember the sunsets. I remember people moving in the twilight. “It is clear from the documentary that Ailey experienced the world differently, the precision and liveliness of her language evidence why her dance pieces evoke the feelings that they did.
Ailey’s early years were marked by a particular kind of toughness, the kind that makes you withdraw within yourself for safety. But there were flashes of softness. In one clip, Ailey recalls his relationship with his friend Chauncey, who saved him from drowning. Remember that Chauncey grabbed him and lay on top of him. “We used to rub each other and all of that,” he recalls. The implications of this statement are never addressed, but the intimacy Ailey felt at the time, and her struggle to find it again later in life, becomes one of the film’s main thematic concerns.
Wignot animates the chronological narration of Ailey’s story with videos of dance pieces that reflect different periods of her life. The choice adds a unique energy to the document and reaffirms Ailey’s role as a translator. From an early age, he possessed an acute awareness and fascination with moving bodies. He understood dance as a tool of expression, a vehicle to build community and a way to embody freedom without restrictions. To close the choreographer’s story about a dance hall he frequented in his youth, where he experienced dance informally for the first time, Wignot inserts a clip from “Blue Suite” (1958). In that piece, the figures surround a person sitting on a chair in the center of the stage. He forcefully shoves the other performers away from him before leading them in a slow-motion dance. The piece considers the simultaneity of pain and pleasure in the lives of African Americans.
When she was 12 years old, Ailey and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where she gradually discovered a love for theater and formal dance. Her passion began with the black dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and blossomed further when she began taking modern dance classes in Lester Horton’s company. He studied with Horton for several years before founding his own company in 1958.
Wignot describes the success of Ailey’s company and paints a delicate portrait of the artist’s life. Towards the end of Ailey, a darker thematic element emerges: the rise and growing celebrity of the choreographer became the main driver of the deep isolation and sense of loneliness he felt. The filmmaker does not shy away from this melancholic arc and further enriches the documentary. You walk away admiring not only the theme of the film, but also its director.