Jamila Wignot’s Ailey celebrates its subject, the late modern dance iconoclast Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), in his own words and through his sublime choreography. The documentary is anchored by clips of past performances by the American Dance Theater, the company he founded in 1958, and recent rehearsals of “Lazarus,” choreographer Rennie Harris’s ode to Ailey. Still photographs and archival footage, accompanied by voice-over narration drawn from Ailey’s appearances, are mixed with original interviews of choreographers, former dancers and staff members. Wignot’s storyline is also obviously informed by anecdotes from dancer Judith Jamison’s 1993 memoir Dancing Spirit, and from Ailey and A. Peter Bailey’s 1995 autobiography.
Jamison, who is interviewed in the documentary, was Ailey’s first successor as artistic director. She speaks about the company’s commitment to nurturing young dancers and choreographers, and to Ailey’s aim to “educate,” but is most effective when she recalls her notable 1971 debut performance of “Cry.” It was Ailey’s birthday present to his mother, and a work he later dedicated to all Black women. Other memorable interviewees, such as long standing stage manager Bill Hammond, dancer George Faison, and rehearsal director Mary Barnett, speak to Ailey’s generous spirit of inclusion, and his claim, in voice-over early in the film, that one must “be possessed to dance.” Faison was just that, and attests to the importance of the multi-racial company, recalling Ailey as the man who taught him that “a Black boy could actually dance.”
Wignot’s portrait is somewhat romanticized, for instance, when she reduces Ailey’s struggle with drug addiction to one instance of institutionalization, in which his mother spent weeks helping him to recover. Another is when his lifelong quest for self-realization as a gay, Black man, from humble roots, is confined to brief remarks by choreographer T. Bill Jones near the end of the documentary. Wignot’s use of archival footage depicting Jim Crow-era Texas, to represent the circumstances of Ailey’s boyhood, is excessive and at times oddly poetic in its depiction of Black life. The sound mix during these sequences also adds a note of sentimentalization.
On the other hand, it is possible that this white critic finds it difficult to accept what may in fact be Wignot’s African-American gaze, that asks audiences to embrace that horrific era of American history as fodder for Ailey’s creativity. The choreographer twice refers to significant events in his boyhood as inspirations for his ballets. Blues Suite, for instance, is based on Jim Crow-era, segregated honkey-tonk bars where Blacks felt safe to congregate. It was the dance that launched the company in 1958. Revelations, Ailey’s most famous work, also recalls his Baptist upbringing in Texas, albeit with mixed emotions.
Ailey is a particularly well-researched and entertaining documentary, with an excellent picture edit by Annukka Lilja (Mr. Soul!, 2018), and a good rerecording mix (the final sound mix) by Paul Tsu (Summer of Soul, 2021), but in the end it reveals little of its subject. Wignot’s premise is that Ailey is alive in his work, and that to illustrate many instances of the American Dance Theater’s sublime choreography is biography. For the dancer, perhaps, but not for audiences who seek in a biodoc the opportunity to understand the life, as well as the work.
That Ailey’s dances were political, that they addressed the triumphs and travails of African-Americans, and that they often depicted universal struggles for identity and freedom, is apparent to anyone who attends a performance, or who screens the clips of his dances in this film. Ailey’s status as a world-renowned choreographer is less clear in the film, as is the uniqueness of his technique, and exactly what distinguished his choreography.
Choreographers do not simply create the dancer’s steps and the position of their bodies; in modern dance especially, the collaboration between choreographer and dancer is key to the realization of the work, as Jamison briefly remarks. At the core of Ailey’s style is his choice of music, that conveys Black historical memory, or contemporary political or social statements. Intense emotion and evocative gestures often recall the plight of African-American slavery. While the latter is apparent from some of the ballets depicted in Ailey, the genesis of that work, and Ailey’s influences are not.
Ailey’s most significant mentor, referred to briefly in the documentary, was American choreographer Lester Horton (1906-1953), who was inspired by Native American dance, and the pioneering work of American modern dancer-choreographer Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), who is not mentioned. Before forming his own company and after Horton’s sudden death, Ailey did a short stint as director of the Horton Dance Group; in his biography, he says that he strives to maintain the atmosphere of love and support at the American Dance Theater that he felt as a Horton dancer. In that multi-racial troupe, that honored the diversity of the American experience, Ailey no doubt began to envision the ways in which the rich history of Black music, especially song, could form the basis of dance narratives chronicling the lives of African-Americans.
Wignot begins her documentary with footage from the 1988 Kennedy Center Honors that, ironically, Ailey received during the Reagan presidency and the AIDS pandemic, rife with recrimination against gay men. Ailey is seen in a group photo that included the president and first lady who typically host the last night of the festivities. He is obviously ill, and in fact died a year later from AIDS. (His necklace is not the LGBTQ rainbow; it is given to all winners and represents the variety of talent the Kennedy Center celebrates.) From Wignot’s standpoint, the honors were particularly exploitative in the sense that a Black artist is honored to score political points.
Amidst the current wave of heightened inclusion standards and recognition for underrepresented groups, as well as what some African-Americans view as the deleterious effects of “Black exceptionalism,” this subject could not be more timely. Nevertheless, these scenes, that also close documentary, mark a jarring departure from Wignot’s sentimental portrait. Her approach to Ailey’s incalculable contribution to dance is best articulated in the remark of former artistic director Masazumi Chagra: he says that Ailey’s lifelong pursuit was “to provide a place of beauty.” That “place” in live performance is by nature evanescent, but its depiction in documentary film requires context and editorializing. Wignot’s aestheticism works against both in Ailey, rendering the famously private artist as elusive as he was in life.
NEON will release Ailey in theaters on July 23, 2021.
Image courtesy of NEON