Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film in theaters on Friday, July 23.
The name Alvin Ailey is synonymous with modern dance everywhere. The legendary dancer, director, and choreographer predominated contemporary dance through the latter half of the 20th century under the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, democratizing the art form with his racially diverse company and emotionally driven movements that spoke directly to the Black American experience. An eponymous documentary tribute to Ailey’s momentous life’s work offers a moving archive of his most momentous achievements, including his masterpiece “Revelations,” but struggles — as many of his friends and collaborators did — to fully understand the man behind the myth. Like all geniuses, an exceedingly rare class of true artists, Alvin Ailey surrendered most of himself to the gods of creativity.
Using audio interviews with Ailey from the end of his life as a guiding narration, director Jamila Wignot weaves a pastiche of archival footage from the Deep South, New York City in the ’70s, and a vast trove of Ailey dances to create a hypnotic, immersive portrait of the visionary choreographer. Dance fans will flip for the absurd display of rare performances the “Ailey” team have uncovered (archival producer Rebecca Kent deserves a special shout-out), which includes original performances of some of Ailey’s most famous pieces. Editor Annukka Lilja (“Mr. Soul!”) casts a kind of magic between layers of decades-apart performance footage, resurrecting lithe and limber figures as if from dream, their otherworldly athleticism captured on grainy celluloid.
Of particular delight are dance scenes of young Ailey himself, muscular and fresh-faced, alongside original Ailey company members Carmen de Lavallade. The film also includes many performances by the phenomenal Judith Jamison, an Ailey dancer and muse who became Artistic Director of the company after Ailey’s death from AIDS-related illness in 1989. Jamison and Lavallade appear as lively interview subjects in the film, along with former dancers and company associates George Faison, Mary Barnett, Sylvia Waters, Sarita Allen, Masazumi Chaya, and choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Jones, who has himself been the subject of multiple films, most recently “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters” which premiered at last year’s DOC NYC, offers some of the film’s most cogent and arresting analyses. As a Black gay choreographer who collaborated with Ailey towards the end of his career, Jones is perhaps the most obvious successor to and beneficiary of Ailey’s legacy.
“One’s gift, one’s genius, separates oneself from one’s colleagues,” Jones says about Ailey’s demons, which made him aloof and prone to occasional disappearances. He suspected that Ailey suffered from “a self-loathing that comes from feeling unworthy [of success].”
The film only delves briefly into Ailey’s personal life, offering a minor anecdote about a gorgeous Parisian named Abdullah who followed Ailey to New York only to abandon him unceremoniously. Ailey’s mother emerges as the central love of his life, which is perhaps unsurprising for a gay man of his generation. It was she who nursed him back to health after a hospital stint, the details of which remain vague. Jones again: “Who could love him? Were they loving him, or what he represented? His fame.”
“Ailey” is also framed around the development of “Lazarus,” a new piece in honor of Ailey, which the present day Ailey company rehearses under the direction of Jamison’s successor Robert Battle and choreographer Rennie Harris. These scenes, while beautiful to watch, feel at a slight remove from the rest of the film. Ailey’s influence is alive and well in the young dancers’ practiced movements, but a full parallel of the “Lazarus” story to Ailey seems to have eluded Wignot. A more cohesive meta-narrative would have kicked things up a few levels.
“Ailey” opens with the late great Cicely Tyson introducing Ailey at the Kennedy Center Honors, where she dubs him the “pied piper of modern dance.” In a powerful Hail Mary finale, the film bookends the same scene as news of Ailey’s death plays over the image of Ronald and Nancy Reagan smiling dopily as the Ailey company performs and anointing Ailey with the nation’s highest medal of artistic merit. By now, anyone watching “Ailey” doesn’t need it spelled out, though Jones offers a rousing condemnation nonetheless. Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic cost millions of lives, even as he enjoyed the fruits of the artistic labor of those it claimed.
As a personal portrait, “Ailey” is lacking for charming anecdotes or nuggets of wisdom from the artist himself. But a true artist speaks through his work, and it’s appropriate that the revelations in “Ailey” arrive via the dance scenes. Towards the end of his life, one dancer says Ailey preferred to lounge on a couch in the rehearsal studio, just to be near his company. Though his dances may take your breath away, Jamison claims Ailey’s final breath was a deep inhale, and the company glides on his exhale to this day.
“Ailey” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Documentary Competition.
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