“AILEY,” a portrait of the pioneering Black choreographer/dancer and founder of the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, by documentary filmmaker Jamilla Wignot, opened July 23 in New York City.
In a film assembled with all of the varied color and kinetic vibrance of African kente cloth, Wignot gives us a poignant biographical look at the genius who launched a modern dance company that centered the African American experience in a way that was both personal and universal, revealing its global resonance at a time when the Civil Rights Movement triggered a seismic shift in America’s socio-political landscape and a wave of liberation struggles from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia turned the tide on western colonialism. With a narrative that places Ailey’s life and art at the intersection of race, gender, economics and politics, “AILEY” allows us to see, hear and feel the world that had an impact on and was, in turn, impacted by this Black man who would begin life dirt poor in the Jim Crow South and end up creating a cultural institution that enriches the human spirit as it “holds a mirror to society so that people can see how beautiful they are.” Though predominantly Black the AAADT has reflected diversity, equity, and inclusion long before it became a thing.
In the words of choreographer Rennie Harris, another artist featured in AILEY, the film like the dance we see him creating about Ailey’s life, helps us learn “What made Mr. Ailey, Mr. Ailey.” To that end, Wignot gives us Ailey in his own voice. He introduces himself: “My name is Alvin Ailey. I’m a choreographer, I create movement and I’m searching for truth in movement.” Like kente cloth, Wignot’s also gives us the multi-hued threads that weave in and out of a story contextualizing the man. The portrait is punctuated by the choreographic masterpieces that embody his lived experience, including “Blues Suite,” “Revelations,” “Memoria” the tribute to Ailey colleague Horton-dancer-teacher- choreographer Joyce Trisler, and his signature solo, “Cry,” the birthday present for his mother, Mrs. Cooper, and a tribute to “Black women everywhere––especially our mothers,” that catapulted a young Judith Jamison to fame.
“AILEY” gives us the man in his own voice recalling, as a young boy in Rogers, Texas, picking cotton or seeing his mother “scrub floors in white folks’ homes.” There are the Saturday night juke joints where folks “who didn’t have much but had each other,” let it all hang out. Then, as they mitigate the world’s trials and tribulations with soul soothing spirituality, there is the baptism ritual where they washed their sins away. There is the boy whose sexuality is aroused by another on a hot Texas summer day. There is the youngster whose love of dance became more than an impossible dream when he sees the Katherine Dunham company. There is the young, gay Black man struggling to be who he is in an America where centering any part of his truth is an act of defiance. There is the community of talented dancers that become his family. And, at the heart of the matter, there is the artist whose life and art are proof that the most intimately personal truths are the most universal.
As each phase of his life unfolds, “AILEY” the film gives us a front row seat to his journey with archival footage that captures the inextricable link between art and life, what Ailey called his “blood memories.” We see Ailey, the young dancer, whose prowess prompts one critic to a describe him as panther-like. We watch him creating ballets in the studio giving meaning and motivation to movement. We see the AAADT evolve from a small cast of memorable characters traveling cross country in a tour bus to become the internationally celebrated national treasure that audiences around the world shower with thunderous applause and lengthy ovations. And, we hear colleagues share memories and/or mesmerize us with their performances. Some like AAADT Artistic Director emerita Judith Jamison, do both. It’s a walk down memory lane with Carmen de Lavallade, former Associate Director Mary Barnett, Masazumi Chaya, Sarita Allen, John Parks, Renee Robinson, Donna Wood, and the late Thelma Hill, James Truitte, Consuelo Atlas, Miguel Godreau, Mari Kajiwara, Minnie Marshall, Kelvin Rotardier, and some whose devotion and behind-the-scenes roles were invaluable to Ailey’s success, like Bill Hammond.
At times “AILEY” is the sweetest most soul-stirring walk down memory lane. For all touched by his genius in any form it is a powerfully poignant portrait of the passion at the heart of his creativity, the humanity at the heart of his spirit, and, yet the burdensome weight of loneliness that gnawed at the soul of this genius. In some ways it brings to mind the line from the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” as the film shows Ailey’s last days battling the pandemic that took his life––AIDS. At the same time, there is the end of the Rennie Harris’ dance as well as Judith Jamison’s memory of Ailey’s last breath, as both remind us “Weeping only lasts for the night…Joy comes I the morning.”
Clearly, filmmaker Wignot’s deft handling of this complex man is the product of vast experience which includes work on the award-winning PBS series “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates and chronicling the 500 year history of African Americans. It’s also, she says, the end result of years of extensive, research involving, “reading A. Peter Bailey’ ‘Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey,’ Jennifer Dunning’s ‘Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance,’ scholar Thomas DeFrantz’s ‘Dancing Revelations, ‘and Zita Allen’s ‘AAADT 25th Anniversary Souvenir’ book, as well as the companion website for the PBS documentary ‘Free To Dance,’ which was a tremendous resource for understanding Ailey in the context of other Black dance makers. In addition, I read Brenda Dixon ‘Gottschild’s The Black Dancing Body,’ and Julia Folkes’ ‘Modern Bodies, ‘Susan Manning’s ‘Modern Dance Negro Dance.’ Lastly, I spent about three weeks at the Performing Arts Library steeping myself in the collection of Ailey materials. For all of my films, I work to steep myself in the subject matter, even though I’m not always intent on or invested in translating all of the context to the screen.”
AAADT Artistic Director Robert Battle said recently that the depth of knowledge she brought to AILEY was evident. During a post-screening panel discussion with Wignot that was moderated by David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, Battle lavished the documentary with praise saying, “What I think this film does is humanize Alvin Ailey. It shows his vulnerability and that he was always searching.” More importantly, Battle added, in that vulnerability is Ailey’s power: “To a certain extent a person like Alvin Ailey, a genius who is a conduit of some force beyond themselves, has to be open in order to receive that and make it visible to you. So in some ways that vulnerability allows him to express things that are unseen. To me that notion of him making this unseen beauty visible to us is still alive long after his death. It is also at the heart of what this film brings to life.”
For information on where the film can be viewed, visit the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre website at www.aileyfilm.com or Neon Films at www.neonrated.com/films/ailey.