CAST: Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Judith Jamison, George Faison
RUNNING TIME: 82 mins
BASICALLY…: The life and career of influential dance choreographer Alvin Ailey…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
You may know some of his famous dance routines, but how much do you know about the man himself? Most likely not that much, for while Alvin Ailey is a revered figure in the world of dance and a highly respected one outside of it, many details about his personal life are still a mystery, even more than 30 years after his death.
Ailey, the new documentary from director Jamila Wignot, attempts to fill in some of those gaps during its exploration of the famed choreographer’s life and legacy, and while the picture still leaves some blank spaces there is enough to serve as a formidable introduction for those interested in learning a bit more about the guy.
The film charts Ailey’s earlier career as a dancer, and his later successes as the director and head choreographer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), through which he crafts a number of intricate numbers that highlight the Black experience in America. It is told through a mix of archival footage, interviews with former acquaintances, and a wraparound segment of rehearsals for a new piece to commemorate the 60th anniversary of AAADT, all of which help to visualise Ailey’s life from his humble origins as a young Depression-era boy in 1930s Texas, to discovering the artform of dance after watching other African-American performers like Katherine Dunham, to the building pressure of his later life due to success, troubling relationships, and eventually his succumbing to AIDS-related complications in 1989.
I can’t say for sure, but I imagine anyone going in to see Ailey who is already quite knowledgeable about the man’s life and career might find this movie to be rather light on truly revelatory details. This seems like the kind of movie that would only cover the basics of someone’s life and leave some of the more vital pieces of information out of the picture, enough for aware viewers to fill in those gaps themselves. However, for anyone who is going in knowing next to nothing about the figure (as I admittedly did), Ailey is a rather powerful introduction to this man’s legacy, focusing on some of his most fabulous dance routines and how they speak to the cancerous treatment of African-American civilians in the 20th century. During the film, it is mentioned that Ailey wished to campaign for civil rights not through the activism of many other Black citizens at the time, but through the majestic power of his work which could potentially reach greater numbers than some of the other grassroots movements going on at the same time; watching his work in practise, you can see why he would want to stick with this route, because the film does well at showcasing how the raw and ferocious power of dance that he crafted could potentially be just as powerful as the spoken word, if not more so.
It’s interesting to learn more about this guy as the film goes along, wherein his archived voiceover narrates his lowly childhood living with his single mother, whom he was close with for his entire life, and other figures such as dancing contemporaries George Faison and Judith Jamison recalling their own experiences with Ailey, including travelling across the country in a tiny tour bus with all their equipment crammed in, and witnessing the first signs of his deteriorating mental health. While the vast majority of feedback toward the central figure is predictably positive, the film isn’t exactly an all-praising project; it remembers to show some of his darker moments, including his aforementioned mental issues which are captured through some discombobulating editing, including sped-up footage which makes the shaky camera style seem all the more like you’re experiencing a panic attack in real-time. The film balances itself evenly enough to show the more human side to this very complex figure, but certainly finds plenty to compliment about them as well.
Some aspects, even as someone who doesn’t know a lot about him, are sketchy to a point where you wish the film explored these regions a bit more. The matter of Ailey’s sexuality for one, is only lightly touched upon; famously private about his personal affairs, Ailey was known to be gay but kept his relationships out of the spotlight, bar one strange partnership which abruptly ended when they suddenly disappeared. Other key elements, such as how exactly Ailey got AAADT off the ground in the first place, are notably absent from the film’s storytelling, which for a film that is supposed to tell newcomers more about this guy’s journey towards notoriety seems like a slight misstep.
However, Ailey does succeed in creating a sense of euphoria surrounding the man, certain biographical details be damned. Throughout, you certainly feel his passion, his dedication, and his determination for the craft, all of which create more of a feeling of the man rather than a full-bodied account of his life. While personally I wish that more could have been said about the guy, Ailey does allow you the opportunity to see the world through his eyes as much as possible, which makes it admirable to say the least.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Ailey is an intriguing documentary that explores the life and career of the influential dance choreographer, though while it glosses over some of the more vital biographical details it manages to create a euphoric feeling that can only be experienced through the figure’s very eyes.