Whether you have studied choreography or have never seen a live dance performance, Jamila Wignot’s powerful new documentary “Ailey” will make you fall in love with the art of dance and Alvin Ailey’s vision of it. Ailey was a legendary choreographer whose life was characterized by defying the odds and total creative immersion.
Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. His mother raised him on her own, and Ailey had to work alongside her picking cotton and cleaning the homes of wealthy white Texans. This childhood was marked by the dueling forces of brutal racism and the resilient spirit of Black Americans and would go on to fuel Ailey’s innovations and expression through dance.
In search of better prospects, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1941. This is where he would first encounter the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and become awakened to his attraction to dance. A few years later, his classmate and future collaborator Carmen De Lavallade brought him to Lester Horton’s studio. Horton became Ailey’s teacher and mentor, shaping Ailey’s early years as a dancer and choreographer.
Ailey always believed that he had a unique vision he could not find in the work of other choreographers, leading him to found his own dance company and delve fully into expressing the Black American experience through his work. He was not appreciated in America until his company received incredible response from the international community. After performing in Moscow in 1970, the audience of the closing night show would not stop applauding, and the company gave more than 30 curtain calls. The company returned home to the States as a massive success.
The story of Ailey’s life is enough to sweep you off your feet, but Wignot’s documentary brings this portrait even more magic and broader scope through the use of stunning archival footage, both of Ailey’s career and rare glimpses into African American life from the Great Depression era through the civil rights movement.
It honors Ailey’s vision of expressing the universality and humanity of the African American experience and pays homage to Ailey by capturing the person behind the legend. The person who created poetry through movement and experienced the euphoria of self-expression, yet remained haunted by the harsh contrast between his downtrodden childhood and the dazzling success of his career.
The archival footage and narration is brought to modern day by intercutting it with the creation of a new dance to honor Ailey’s life and legacy, as well as interviews from choreographers and dancers who worked with or were influenced by Ailey. The tactful editing by Annukka Lilja and Cory Jordan Wayne brings it all together to make a film that is humble, yet deeply impactful.
Naiti Gámez’s graceful cinematography creates intimate and moving moments as we watch dancers explore new ways to express Ailey’s heart and philosophies. “Ailey” is a beautiful and emotional work that will move even those who are strangers to Alvin Ailey. It invites its audience to fall in love with the raw, spiritual power of dance and to celebrate all those who contribute to exploring and furthering its form.
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