August 05, 2021

By Lapacazo Sandoval

Contributing Writer


Director Jamila Wignot created a stunning documentary that chronicles the amazing life of the great, late, Alvin Ailey, the American dance giant, choreographer, and founder of the innovative Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was Ailey’s body that spoke, screamed, whispered, and celebrated. His strong body was a canvas where emotions were played out in the twist of his head, the sway of the hips, the reach of the arms, and the tapping of his feet on the floors, pouring out emotion — in equal measure — we see joy, sadness, pain, and lust.

Being a dancer and an innovator took its toll on Ailey, and Wignot presents those delicate details with great care.

The doc “Ailey” opens with a clip of the late actress Cicely Tyson at a Kennedy Center tribute for Ailey in 1988.

For so many of us, his success in a field that was traditionally ruled by White dancers was nothing short of witnessing a miracle, over and over again. “They,” said we could not master ballet because of the shapes of our bodies, and “they” were wrong.

“Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of things. His is a choreography of the heart,” Tyson says. “Alvin Ailey is Black and he’s universal.”

Like proving “their” absurd ideas wrong, the camera cuts to a powerful performance by a group of African-American women (dressed in “see me” mustard yellow suits) sitting in evenly spaced chairs, their backs facing the audience. The formation brings back memories of musical chairs because when the music starts, they flap their mustard-colored fans, using them to bring the dance to life. 

And watching all of this, from the balcony, is the great Ailey, looking like the King that he was. This is a visionary who left a Kingdom, all hail the King.

Wignot’s documentary explores his legacy starting with a peek into the year, 2018 where a group of dancers rehearses with the new artistic director of Alvin Ailey Robert Battle and the choreographer Rennie Harris.

The cause of celebration is rehearsing a piece to honor Ailey’s life (“Lazarus”) which was linked to the 60th anniversary of his famed dance company.

The weight of being African-American and destroying barriers left, right, and center is what is riding on the assignment. Each dance movement a question, asking about the importance and impact of the legacy. Or asking a larger question, which is, “how do you present something like 60 years?”

The use of well-preserved archival footage and interviews with Ailey’s colleagues and friends is deeply appreciated, and it’s where we can separate the man from the legend. That’s important if you want to under the genius in Ailey. It’s these peoples’ intimate stories that help reveal a man whose generosity knew no bounds (gratitude) and his burning obsession to live in the world of perfection, as he defined it.

Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas (1931), and was blessed to have a close relationship with his mother.

He never knew his father and at the age of 4 years old, he was picking cotton.

These memories didn’t leave him. “I remember being glued to my mother’s hip, sloshing through the terrain, branches slashing against a child’s body,” he says in a clip.

“I remember the sunsets. I remember people moving in the twilight.” And now, the viewer paints a picture and in this documentary, it’s clear that Ailey experienced the world differently from the very start.

At the age of 12, Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he discovered a love for theater and formal dance. This passion was aided by the African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and took off when he began taking modern dance classes at Lester Horton’s company. He studied under Horton for many years before founding his own company in 1958.

Ailey’s early years were challenging as you can imagine, and the director brings life to these stories by showing videos of dance pieces that reflect different periods of his life. A genius choice because it adds that extra blast of energy and reaffirms Ailey’s ability as a translator. We are all — in a way— bodies in motion. Ailey understood this from an early age, and he used dance as a tool for expression, a vehicle for building community, and a way to step into freedom.

All of his choreography demonstrates the pain and pleasure in the lives of African- Americans. The continued legacy and success of Ailey’s company speak to the enduring spirit that lived in this man. But there is a price for this level of fame and, in a sense, immortality. Towards the end, he felt the burden of his celebrity which (like many before and after him) drove him into deep isolation and a sense of loneliness. This is important to know and the filmmaker didn’t shy away from this, this is an important lesson for all future visionaries.

This is a wonderful film in every way. I say it again — long live the legacy of King, Alvin Ailey the legendary American dancer and choreographer, and father of the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Opening in New York on July 23 and Nationwide on August 6.

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 22 minutes

Category: Arts & Culture