2021, PG-13, 82 min. Directed by Jamila Wignot.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 6, 2021
The painter uses his brush; the filmmaker her camera; the writer his pen. But for the dancer, the instrument of artistic expression is not something external but rather the human body itself. Legendary African American choreographer Alvin Ailey understood the transcendence of bodily movement in the wealth of modern dance pieces he created over a period of two decades, many of which continue to astonish and inspire.
The impressionistic documentary Ailey communicates this visionary auteur’s comprehension of the art form: through his own words; through the words of others, most notably, his muse Judith Jamison and fellow choreographer Bill T. Jones; and, with great potency, film clips of archived performances (some of them original performances!) of his work.
At one point, Ailey recalls in an audio interview how, at an early age, he had “dark, deep, beautiful things inside me that I’d always been trying to get out,” a creative urge that eventually led to the founding of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which remains a first-class school for dance training today. (The rehearsals of a new piece honoring Ailey – “Lazarus” – that are intermittently shown throughout the movie glimpses the impressive talent pool there.) Though Ailey aptly demonstrates why this virtuoso should be remembered, it reveals little about the man himself, only sketchily delving into his adult personal life, perhaps in keeping with his closeted homosexuality and his efforts to conceal his AIDS-related illness and death at age 58. In the end, Alvin Ailey largely remains an enigma, which may be what the notoriously tight-lipped man would have wanted.
The documentary begins a bit clunkily, with an overlong excerpt from the Kennedy Center Honors telecast in which he was celebrated just a year before he died. (The bitter irony of President Reagan’s handshake with the honoree and the First Lady’s chaste kiss on his cheek burns a little.) The biographical narrative is largely chronological, following the genre’s traditional cradle-to-grave format with less information and fewer insights as it progresses toward the end of his life. But Ailey’s early years are nicely recounted here. Beginning with his impoverished childhood in rural Texas, where his single mother supported her only child working a string of menial jobs, the movie then shifts to the family’s relocation to Los Angeles, where a teenaged Ailey (with the encouragement of his mother, the great love of his life) is introduced to the world of modern dance, a world with few African American role models. After moving to New York City in 1954, he quickly established himself as a dancer and choreographer intent on revolutionizing the art form, opening his namesake dance school there in 1958. By 1980, after a slew of artistic and financial successes, this man described as “lonely” and “isolated” experienced a debilitating breakdown that led to a brief stay in a mental health institution, a critical life episode from which Ailey does not flinch but nevertheless fails to satisfactorily explore. It’s around this point the movie retreats somewhat from hard truths, as if it were intruding on private territory.
The film’s integration of filmed performance excerpts of Ailey’s most stellar work is the highlight here, framing each of them in a cultural or historical context that heightens the experience. There’s the 1958 production of the lively “Blues Suite," inspired by Ailey’s early memories of joyous dancing on Saturday nights in African American honky-tonks, and the 1971 performance of “Cry," a tribute to Black mothers inspired by the devoted maternal figure whose beauty he likened to Lena Horne. And, of course, there’s a clip of perhaps his most lasting work, the 1960 “Revelations," a panorama of “blood memories” culled from his Texas youth. Kudos to archival producer Rebecca Kent for gathering these integral film clips for inclusion in Ailey. Even the uninitiated in modern dance will marvel at their genius.