Gemma Creagh looks at Jamila Wignot’s examination of an icon, choreographer Alvin Ailey.
Renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey, his life and his astounding career, makes for fascinating subject matter. Yet while this documentary pays this cultural icon well-deserved lip service, it falls shy of exploring the complexities of his troubled life.
The film opens to footage from 1988, when a smiling Alvin Ailey, sporting the pride colours, receives The Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Contribution to American Culture Through the Performing Arts. Awarded not long before his death, this is the United States’s highest distinction for creatives – a highly deserved acknowledgement for the man who spent his life elevating black artists, and expressing the African American experience through dance in a way that resonated with the world. And at great cost to himself. Meanwhile, in present day New York, a street sign reads Alvin Ailey Place – a testament to this long standing legacy. In the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris directs dancers in a rehearsal for a performance celebrating the 60th anniversary of the formation of this company.
In the beginning of the film, the details of Ailey’s personal life are told mostly via his own voice, often faltering, distorted on degrading tape. Arriving to New York City in 1954 as a young man in his 20s, Ailey worked as a dancer, first studying dance, then using movement and emotion to tell his story. He stresses the difficulty of a career in the field, of the low pay, and the toll it takes on the body as well as the hardship that touring has on personal relationships. Remembering his youth in Texas in the ‘30s he shares stories of a simple, rural childhood, growing up in poverty with his single mother, a woman he admired deeply. She picked cotton and cleaned houses for white folks so he could thrive. The strength and plight of black women was to become a major focus of his work in years to come. Although notoriously private, Ailey hints at early experiences of homosexuality. He wryly notes being labeled a “sissy” and as he got older in high school he abandoned football, instead enjoying the physicality of gymnastics, before finally turning to dance.
After founding his dance company in 1958, he mined the ‘blood memory’ of his past, converting this intergenerational pain into movement. It was in 1960, at the age of 29, when Ailey created his most popular and critically acclaimed work to date, Revelations. A piece set to spiritual, gospel, and blues music, this was a celebration of the rural black Christian experience and is still performed to this day. This work was seminal in the world of modern dance and elevated the stature and perception of performers of colour. Bringing him worldwide acclaim, the cultural significance of a black, queer man in this era having that level of international impact brought with it a great deal of pressure. He continued working over the years, constantly touring, creating striking, powerful compositions – however this ultimately lead to his burnout as well as mental health struggles.
Jamila Wignot paints a complicated portrait of a lonely man with a strong bond to his mother. While it’s a warm representation, the strokes are just too broad, lacking any satisfactory level of detail. The form, however, is undeniably beautiful. Wignot splices together modern day moments and talking heads, interviews, old recordings, footage, and pieces of abstract movement – all overlaid with a haunting, emotive score. There’s a sense of movement, a flow to the edit that is almost hypnotic in itself.
Ailey is in cinemas from 7th January 2022.