AILEY director Q&A hosted by Bonnie Greer screens in cinemas on January the 4th, book now: www.aileyfilm.co.uk.
Alvin Ailey once said, “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people”. Born on January the 5th, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, during the great depression, there is no doubt that Ailey’s career brought dance back to the people while embracing its rich diversity. However, Ailey’s journey from the racist and segregated South of his youth to the New York stage also speaks to something far more profound. It speaks to an internal fire and passion for cultural change, rebirth, equality, representation, and diversity – his journey, a fight against internal and external discrimination, where dance became his voice, sword, and shield.
AILEY (STILL) ©PBS/DOGWOOF (2021)
Watching director Jamila Wignot’s Ailey, I found my thoughts drifting to the power of dance in building identity, bridges of understanding and cultural change. After all, to see the power dance can wield, you only have to look at TV shows like the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. The 2021 season introduced us to its first gay and deaf/hearing couple. Even more joyous was that both of these couples made it to the final, in which they swept the audience away in a pre-Christmas celebration of change, difference, and multi-cultural diversity. However, this landmark in TV dancing may have never been reached without the pioneering artistry of dancers and choreographers like Alvin Ailey. Yet, despite this, I am sure some of you reading this review will neither know of Ailey’s work nor his place in the history of modern dance.
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After leaving the South as a young man, Ailey was introduced to the world of dance in Los Angeles. It was here that The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company became his inspiration as he began his formal dance training with Lester Horton. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ailey was performing on Broadway in shows that included Truman Capote’s House of Flowers, The Carefree Tree and Jamaica. But it was Ailey’s dance company that would ultimately catapult him to global fame as he drew his inspiration from the African American music and culture of his youth.
However, there is a significant problem in bringing Ailey’s life to the screen. Alvin Ailey was a profoundly personal man who never allowed his innermost thoughts space to breathe in interviews. And while Wignot does masterfully use audio recordings and brief TV appearances to uncover some of the life experiences that sat behind the dancing genius, the resulting documentary ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers. Here we catch glimpses of the troubled interface between Ailey’s sexual orientation and cultural heritage, the need to break the unspoken boundaries of dance, and the horror of racism in American society that spurred his artistic approach. But, these glimpses of what made the man also remain shrouded in the unknown, with many of the dancers who made up his groundbreaking American Dance Theater Company admitting that they never really knew the man behind the curtain.
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The answer to this is for Wignot to allow Ailey’s dance to do the talking, and it’s here that we find the man’s inner turmoil, passion and beauty. Here Ailey drew on his childhood memories in Revelations and Blues Suite as ballet mixed with jazz and cultural traditions to create something unique. His stage shows would become an international sensation while elevating his American Dance Theater to the forefront of modern contemporary dance. Here Ailey’s success would become all-encompassing as he pushed himself and his company to achieve more in breaking down the barriers of class and race that surrounded dance.
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However, that commitment and drive would come at a price; his well-being and happiness. Here, Ailey would all but hide his sexual relationships, never finding any stability in the short and largely secretive partners he embraced. This secrecy would also surround his eventual diagnosis of AIDS. Here Wignot’s documentary reveals the heartbreak of his final months while also reflecting on the trauma of the social discrimination that haunted those who opted to hide their illness from view.
Wignot’s documentary is a loving and vibrant exploration of a groundbreaking artist. However, over thirty years on from his death, this is a documentary that continues to raise questions about the man behind the name, questions that we will likely never find any answers to. But as a portrait of a defining figure whose company broke new ground in dance, Ailey is an utter joy to watch. Each interview, clip and dance is a love letter to a man who celebrated Black history, community and culture through movement while tearing down the barriers of the art world. The resulting documentary is a delicate, vibrant, yet incomplete portrait of a man who won worldwide acclaim despite the obstacles placed in his path yet continued to struggle with his own identity.
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A delicate, vibrant, yet incomplete portrait of a man who won worldwide acclaim despite the obstacles placed in his path yet continued to struggle with his own identity.