Alvin Ailey towers over American dance like few figures in history — a pioneer, revolutionary, icon and inspiration whose works live beyond his death in 1989, as does his groundbreaking Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Pieces like “Resurrection,” “Love Songs,” “Masakela Language” and “Cry” on back to “Blues Suite” are revived to this day, far removed from the “contemporary dance” that they were a half-century or more ago, when they premiered.
He is the epitome of the expression, a prince among “American Masters.” Which is where “Ailey,” this wonderful new Jamila Wignot film, now a Neon theatrical release, is bound. But let’s not dwell on the obvious question that’s the first thing that comes to mind after watching it.
“What TOOK you so long?”
Using interviews with dance partners and generations of alumni of his Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, generous samples of performance footage and Ailey rehearsing his corps — an eagle-eyed taskmaster — and archival TV and audio interviews with the man himself, Wignot rebuilds a lonely, driven life that created great art and answers a question Ailey himself must has asked more than once. Was it worth it? Yes it was.
Wignot anchors the film in 2018 rehearsals for a 60th anniversary commission by Ailey acolyte Rennie Harris. “Lazarus,” it was called, and as Harris describes Ailey’s art and style, we see him walk and talk the company through a piece that is Ailey’s legacy, writ large.
Dancers stretch out, standing on their tiptoes, heads titled unnaturally to one side, a lynching in a gesture. This is Harris showing us the essence of Ailey — African American “blood memory,” dance as “story telling,” the choreographer using his corps to “carve the space,” as Ailey himself put it.
His name became a brand during his lifetime, illustrating what his friend, early influence and duet partner Carmen de Lavallade means when she says “sometimes your name becomes bigger than yourself.”
Wignot, using stock footage in sync with Ailey’s own recollections, tells the story of how a son of a cotton picker/maid/single mom from Texas became a world famous choreographer whose company was celebrated from Melbourne to Moscow as it made State Dept. sponsored tours, showing off American dance and a multi-racial company to the world.
Yes, this happened at a time when American Dance Theater couldn’t stay in decent hotels in a largely-segregated America. And yes, that was one of the stresses that Ailey internalized and worked out through his choreography, his every show shouting “I AM” to the world, as one dancer remembers.
Ailey remembers having “nobody to model myself after,” but having a life-changing experience when he saw the Afro-Caribbean dances of Katherine Dunham’s company after his mother moved them to Los Angeles during World War II.
As his fame grew, creating dances from personal experience and memory as well as “blood memory,” he made a vow to those who would follow.
“I want it to be easier than it was for me.”
Generations of dancers back that assertion up.
Like many dancing lives that carried on into the age of AIDS, his story has a tragic arc to it. But Wignot — she did the “Triangle Fire” “American Experience” doc, and Henry Louis Gates films for PBS — takes us from tentative teen to triumph to tragedy with heart and gravitas. This was a life and career of great consequence, a Kennedy Center honoree and an American Master long before this marvelous portrait makes its way — eventually — to PBS.
MPA Rating: PG-13, for brief strong language (profanity)
Cast: Alvin Ailey, Rennie Harris, Carmen de Lavallade, Don Martin, George Faison, Masazumi Chaya, Sylvia Waters, Hope Clarke, Bill T. Jones and Judith Jamison
Credits: Directed by Jamila Wignot. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:35