Synopsis: Alvin Ailey was a visionary artist who found salvation through dance. Told in his own words and through the creation of a dance inspired by his life, this immersive portrait follows a man who, when confronted by a world that refused to embrace him, determined to build one that would.
Stars: Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Darrin Ross, Don Martin, Mary Barnett, Linda Kent, George Faison, Judith Jamison, William Hammond, Sylvia Waters, Hope Clarke, Sarita Allen, Masazumi Chaya, Bill T. Jones
Director: Jamila Wignot
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Though you may not know the name Alvin Ailey, you surely have seen some piece of his work over the years. The revolutionary choreographer was an artist ahead of his time that saw dance as a language he had the power to translate, and his work is representative of that. My own exposure to the works of Ailey has been quite limited and that’s why a documentary like Ailey is a rare opportunity to delve deeper into not just the history of the man himself but into what the dance brought to life in the time it was developed. Each move told a story, and each step had a purpose, and as viewers of this documentary will find out, much of it was born from the pain (personal and professional) experienced by Ailey throughout his life.
Born in Texas in 1931 during the peak of the Great Depression, Ailey rose from picking cotton with his mother to living with her after moving to Los Angeles in 1941. Beginning his formal dance with Lester Horton and the (now legendary) dancer Carmen De Lavallade, he started out in Horton’s troupe and eventually formed a nightclub act with future poet laureate Maya Angelou. This led to numerous tours, club dates, and his Broadway debut but kept Ailey longing for a role that was more tailored to his choreographic interests.
Director Jamila Wignot’s film traces these early years and the eventual formation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater using archival materials from Ailey and stock footage from the era along with Ailey’s own voice recordings recounting his life story. Weaving through and helping to propel the narrative further are Ailey’s own choreographed dances, preserved forever on film and many of them captured with their original performers. Not only do these represent the raw talent that Ailey was working with and who knew his style intimately, but it gives viewers a true taste of what an experience of seeing his pieces must have been like under the watchful eye of the man himself.
Ailey’s most famous piece, Revelations, has entered the cultural lexicon as his calling card of sorts but it was this piece that would haunt him for the remainder of his life before his death of AIDS in 1989. This extraordinary piece charts the black experience using the church and church music as its inspiration. Given an extra bit of attention in Wignot’s documentary, Revelations is fairly stirring even now and along with a dozen or so other works, it can be easy to be swept away into any of the archival numbers presented throughout Ailey. I’m so sorry for those seeing this in theaters, watching it at home I could rewind the film and re-watch the incredible Judith Jamison leave it all on the stage performing Ailey’s propulsive Cry in 1971.
Where the documentary comes up short (feeling padded for time even at 95 minutes) is when it shifts back to the present and watching choreographer Rennie Harris piece together a new work honoring Ailey’s 60th anniversary for the company. What Harris was putting together would, I’m sure, be wonderful but since we don’t get to see that final product it’s just random rehearsal footage and time I’d rather be spending with more of Ailey and his acolytes recounting the history. That’s where the greatest wealth is to be found here.
Perfect for newcomers to Ailey or dance in general, it’s a primer that gives you nearly all the information you need and then encourages further exploration after. While Ailey goes just to edge of some of the more personal aspects of his life, I can’t quite tell if Wignot didn’t want to turn over too many stones that have settled in a good place or if it simply wasn’t part of the story being told. No matter, it’s filled with enough grace and style to catch your eye…most especially Ailey’s long-time stage manager recounting the first performance given after Ailey’s death. Grab your Kleenex.