Emmy-winning director Jamila Wignot’s feature documentary Ailey, which just had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is a captivating and deeply moving portrait of the celebrated dancer and choreographer who in 1958, aged just 27, founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The film opens with footage of the 1988 Kennedy Honors salute to the Alvin Ailey’s career, just one year before his life was cut short by AIDS. Watching the film at Sundance, the sequence is given additional poignancy as we see actress Cicely Tyson, who died just yesterday, giving an onstage tribute to Ailey describing him as “the Pied Piper of dance, that is his genius.”
As Ailey’s legacy continues over three decades on, we meet a new generation of young dancers preparing for a performance to mark the company’s 60th anniversary to be choreographed by Rennie Harris. As Harris seeks inspiration we’re with him as he watches some stunning footage of Ailey dancing and talking about his art, before we are fully immersed into the film’s rich collection of archive material. It’s breathtaking to see Ailey in action and Wignot’s use of clips is beautifully paced so we have time to relish each piece, as we’re guided by Ailey, and several dancers who worked with him, to see the meaning behind the movement. In his own words, using previously publicly unheard audio from interviews Ailey gave a year before his death for his autobiography Revelations, we’re taken through pivotal moments in his life: growing up as an only child in segregated Texas; and his mother moving them to Los Angeles when he was twelve in search of a better life. We hear him talk about his early obsession with the stage in downtown LA, his initial disappointment that he saw “nobody Black to model himself after”, and his joy at discovering performers like Katherine Dunham, and being awestruck that there were male dancers. Touchingly, he recalls a romantic swim with a man whom he was intimate with, a memory that’s accompanied by gorgeous 1940s film of young Black men skinny-dipping in a lake. We learn of his close relationship with his mother, whom he’d later go on to choreograph the solo Cry for in 1971 as a gift to honour her and the sacrifices she’d made for him, as well as a tribute to all Black women and Black mothers. It’s fascinating to hear his muse Judith Jamison (who’d succeed Ailey as Artistic Director of the company following his death) describe what it was like to perform the piece, especially given the significance of its inspiration. Strikingly, lyrically, we hear Ailey talk about the “blood memories” he carries with him of his ancestors, something we see Harris pick up on as we’re invited into his rehearsal space to witness his creative process as he channels Ailey’s majesty into his contemporary piece, describing dancers as “physical historians”.
With the beauty and intention of Ailey’s major works at the heart of the film, we’re taken chronologically through many of them beginning with Blues Suite in 1958, staged just four years after Ailey arrived in New York. We get an insight into what it was like to be guided by him in rehearsal—a combination of tough love and encouragement—as well as a sense of what it was like to be on tour as part of the multiracial company travelling across the US during the civil rights era, and internationally as the company grew. Through present days interviews with those who worked closely with him, we also get a sense of the isolation of being a creator, the solitary nature of the process, and Ailey’s struggles with mental health. Although he didn’t have a longterm partner, we hear him speak adoringly about a handsome man named Abdullah whom he met in Paris and brought back to New York to live with him, audio that’s paired with great use of archive super 8 film of the city, including a brief glimpse of the gay cruising spot of the West Side Piers, and a flash of the work of legendary gay artist James Bidgood.
Reminiscent of the work of Marlon Riggs in its poetic, emotional and intellectual approach, as well as Wignot’s profound contextualisation of Ailey’s life in the history of the African American experience in this country, there’s also an acknowledgement of Ailey having lived at the intersection of racism and homophobia, the racism within the gay community in the 80s, and the stigmatisation of AIDS at the height of the crisis that lead him to not disclose the cause of his illness. In interview footage we hear Ailey express his desire for his work to be expansive and not confined by what people’s expectations of an African American choreographer might be. Examining how his Black identity influenced his work and how Ailey funnelled his “rage and anger” at racial injustice, we see footage of him in the rehearsal room in 1969 guiding his dancer to move “as if you’re being chased by the police”, which is poignantly juxtaposed with Harris’ approach to racism in his contemporary piece.
With storytelling as elegant and exact as the choreography it showcases, and impeccable editing by Annukka Lilja, Ailey is a nuanced hymn to one of the artform’s towering figures. Going beyond the biographical, unlike many documentaries about artists, Ailey gives us a substantial insight into his creative process, as well as the human behind the iconic name. Furthermore, at a time when audiences are deprived of live dance and dancers bereft of audiences to perform for, Ailey is a celebration of the art of dance, those who devote their lives to it, and the power of artistic expression.
By James Kleinmann
Ailey had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday January 30th. There will be another online festival screening on Monday February 1st 10am ET.
Sundance 2021 Satellite Screenings: Monday February 1st Columbia, SC (Spotlight Cinemas Capital, 6:30pm ET); Atlanta, GA (The Plaza Theater, 7pm ET); Memphis, TN (Malco Summer Drive-in, 6pm CT); New Orleans, LA (The Broadside, 6:15pm CT); Atlanta, GA (The Plaza Theater Drive-in, 7:30pm ET).
Sundance 2021 Satellite Screening: Tuesday February 2nd Wichita, KS (Starlite Drive-in, 7:50 pm CT).