Review: Jamila Wignot's 'Ailey' a Stirring Documentary of the Man, His Work, and His Enduring Legacy

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 23, 2021

Alvin Ailey in 'Ailey'
Alvin Ailey in 'Ailey'  (Source:Neon)

Acclaimed filmmaker Jamila Wignot's "Ailey" is a stirring documentary that chronicles Alvin Ailey's life (from his childhood growing up in the '30s in Texas to his emergence as a visionary African American choreographer), the 60-year history of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) from 1958 to the present, and Ailey's towering impact on dance in America.

"Ailey" opens with footage from the 1984 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, with film star Cicely Tyson praising his artistry "as Black and universal." Missing from her plaudits, however, was recognition of Ailey's gay identity.

Wignot fills in that history in her powerful portrait of the private man with rare archival film, interviews with original members of the AAADT about his private life, and — vitally — audio recordings of Ailey himself, speaking intimately about his private life.

Ailey was protective of his personal life for many reasons; he grew up in a racist and homophobic environment. Yet, he speaks of his intense friendship with a male childhood friend.

Ailey was raised in poverty. His father abandoning the family; his mother did everything, including scrubbing floors, to put food on the table. They moved to Los Angeles when Alvin was 12 in 1942 and his mother got a job at Lockheed Industries, the first Black women to be hired as part of the WWII-era "Rosie the Riveter" drive to fill factory jobs that usually went to men.

In L.A., Ailey saw the storied Ballets Russes when he was 14, but it was when he saw Katherine Dunham Dance Company, cast with Afro-Caribbean dancers, the sensuality of both men and women, and the history of their culture embodied in the movement of their dancers, that he found his calling.

Ailey was a good student, and he played on the football team in high school, but he gravitated toward the dance studios of choreographer Lester Horton. There, he partnered with his friend Carmen DeLavallade, and they became stars of the troupe. When Horton was struck by illness, Ailey became principal choreographer of the Lester Horton Company. Ailey moved to New York in 1954 and studied with Martha Graham and Charles Weidman, but "I had my own ideas," specifically, to tell his own stories about Black America.

Wignot presents a stunning selection of performance footage, masterfully edited with film from performances by the Ailey company of the choreographer's signature works, including "Revelations," "Blues Suite," "Cry," and "The River," as performed on stages around the world, including an historic tour in Moscow.

Meanwhile In the U.S., the Black civil rights movement had galvanized people of color to march, boycott, and protest as a means of demanding equality under the law. Original members of AAADT describe what it was like to be celebrated around the world and face discrimination on tours in the U.S. Choreographer George Faison, a veteran member of the company, comments, "Our protest was on the stage. This is what he took up as his crusade. This was our march to freedom."

Judith Jamison, who was Ailey's muse and chosen successor to run the company, describes what it was like to dance "Cry," his spellbinding 17-minute solo dedicated to, in Ailey's words, "all Black women everywhere — especially our mothers." Jamison narrates film of her dancing the premiere performance in 1971, scored to music by Laura Nyro and Alice Coltrane. Jamison remembers the emotional and physical commitment it took as a dancer to, as she puts it, "live in those moments."

For all of his success, Ailey was a restless artist, and didn't want to be limited by audience expectations, saying, "the problem is that if you are a black anything in this country... People say 'Why can't he stick to the blues and the spirituals.' Well, I'm also a 20th century American and I respond to Bach, Ellington, Barber, and Benjamin Britten, and why shouldn't I?"

Throughout the film Wignot has clips of the Ailey company dancers in the studio with choreographer Rennie Harris as he creates "Lazarus," a ballet based on Ailey's life and time, for the company's 60th anniversary season. Harris, who brought hip-hop idioms to the dance theater stage, comments: "Alvin talked about 'blood memory' of movement, down through generations.... I see the dancer as a physical historian."

By the '80s, Ailey was buckling under the pressures of running the company, choreographing, and not able to have a fulfilling personal life. Eventually, he had a breakdown and spent months in a sanitarium. He was forced to slow down because of AIDS symptoms. Jamison describes the moment that Ailey asked her to take over the company because he was too ill to continue.

Ailey died of AIDS at 58 in 1989. This documentary is a moving portrait of the man, his work and his enduring legacy.

"Ailey" opens in theaters July 23, and also will be broadcast on PBS American Masters series.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.