‘Ailey’ — Jamilla Wignot’s poignant portrait of a dance genius


“AILEY,” a portrayal of pioneering black choreographer / dancer and founder of famed American dance theater Alvin Ailey, by documentary director Jamilla Wignot, opened July 23 in New York City.

In a film assembled with all the varied colors and kinetic vibration of African kente fabric, Wignot gives us a poignant biographical look at the genius who started a modern dance company that centered the African-American experience in a way that both personal and universal, revealing its global resonance at a time when the civil rights movement sparked a seismic shift in the American socio-political landscape and a wave of liberation struggles from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia has reversed the course of Western colonialism. With a narrative that places Ailey’s life and art at the intersection of race, gender, economy and politics, “AILEY” allows us to see, hear and feel the world. who had an impact and was, in turn, impacted by this black man. who would start her life in poverty in the Jim Crow South and end up creating a cultural institution that enriches the human spirit as it “holds a mirror of society so that people can see how beautiful they are”. Although predominantly black, the AAADT reflected diversity, equity and inclusion long before it became a thing.

In the words of choreographer Rennie Harris, another artist featured in AILEY, the film like the dance we see him create about Ailey’s life, helps us learn “What made Mr. Ailey Mr. Ailey.” To that end, Wignot gives us Ailey in his own voice. He introduces himself: “My name is Alvin Ailey. I am a choreographer, I create movement and I search for truth in movement. Like the kente fabric, Wignot also gives us the multicolored threads that weave in and out of a story contextualizing man. The portrait is punctuated by choreographic masterpieces that embody her lived experience, including “Blues Suite”, “Revelations”, “Memoria”, a tribute to Ailey Horton’s colleague-dancer-teacher-choreographer Joyce Trisler, and her signature solo, “Cry,” the birthday present for her mother, Mrs. Cooper, and a tribute to “black women everywhere, especially our mothers,” which catapulted a young Judith Jamison to fame.

“AILEY” gives us the man in his own voice remembering, as a young boy from Rogers, Texas, picking cotton or seeing his mother “scrub the floors in white houses.” There are the Saturday night juke-joints where people “who didn’t have much but had each other” left everything lying around. Then, as they ease the trials and tribulations of the world with soul-calming spirituality, there is the ritual of baptism where they washed away their sins. There is the boy whose sexuality is turned on by another on a hot summer day in Texas. There is the youngster whose love of dance has become more than an impossible dream when he sees the Katherine Dunham company. There is the young gay black man who struggles to be who he is in an America where focusing part of his truth is an act of defiance. There is the community of talented dancers who become his family. And, at the heart of the matter, there is the artist whose life and art are proof that the most intimately personal truths are the most universal.

As each phase of her life unfolds, “AILEY” the film puts us at the forefront of her journey with archival footage that captures the inextricable connection between art and life, which ‘Ailey called her “memories of blood.” We see Ailey, the young dancer, whose prowess prompts a reviewer to describe him as a panther. We watch him create ballets in the studio giving meaning and motivation to movement. We see the AAADT evolve from a small group of memorable characters traveling across the country on a tour bus to become the internationally renowned national treasure that audiences around the world shower with thunderous applause and long standing ovations. And we hear colleagues sharing memories and / or hypnotizing us with their performances. Some, like AAADT Artistic Director Emeritus Judith Jamison, do both. It’s a walk down memory lane with Carmen de Lavallade, Former Associate Director Mary Barnett, Masazumi Chaya, Sarita Allen, John Parks, Renee Robinson, Donna Wood and the late Thelma Hill, James Truitte, Consuelo Atlas, Miguel Godreau, Mari Kajiwara, Minnie Marshall, Kelvin Rotardier and some whose dedication and behind-the-scenes roles have been invaluable to Ailey’s success, like Bill Hammond.

Sometimes “AILEY” is the sweetest, most emotional ride in the past. For all touched by his genius in whatever form, it is a powerfully poignant portrait of the passion at the heart of his creativity, of humanity at the heart of his mind, and, yet, the heavy weight of loneliness that lies at the heart of his creativity. gnawed the soul of this genius. . In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the witty “No one knows the problems I’ve seen” line as the film shows Ailey’s final days battling the pandemic that claimed her life – AIDS. At the same time, there is the end of Rennie Harris’s dance as well as Judith Jamison’s memory of Ailey’s last breath, as both remind us “Crying only lasts through the night … Joy comes to me on it. morning.”

Clearly, filmmaker Wignot’s skillful handling of this complex man is the product of extensive experience that includes work on the award-winning PBS series “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates and recounting the 500 year history of African Americans. It is also, she says, the end result of years of extensive research involving “reading” Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey “by A. Peter Bailey,” “Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance” by Jennifer Dunning. Dancing Revelations ”, and Zita Allen’s book“ AAADT 25th Anniversary Souvenir ”, as well as the companion website to the PBS documentary“ Free To Dance, ”which was a great resource for understanding Ailey in the context of other black dance creators. . Also, I read “The Black Dancing Body” by Brenda Dixon and “Modern Bodies” by Julia Folkes, “Modern Dance Negro Dance” by Susan Manning. Finally, I spent about three weeks in the Performing Arts Library delving into Ailey’s collection of materials. For all of my films, I work on immersing myself in the subject matter, even if I’m not always determined or invested in translating the whole context on the screen.

AAADT Artistic Director Robert Battle said recently that the depth of knowledge she brought to AILEY was evident. During a panel discussion with Wignot after the screening, moderated by David J. Johns, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, Battle praised the documentary by saying, “What I think this film does, it’s humanizing Alvin Ailey. This shows his vulnerability and that he was still looking for. More importantly, Battle added, in that vulnerability is Ailey’s power: “To some extent a person like Alvin Ailey, a genius who is a conduit of a force beyond themselves, must be open to receive it and make it visible to you. So in some ways this vulnerability allows him to express unseen things. For me, the idea that he makes this invisible beauty visible to us is still alive long after his death. It is also at the heart of what this film brings to life.

For more information on where the film can be viewed, visit the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website at www.aileyfilm.com or Neon Films at www.neonrated.com/films / ailey.


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