AILEY: Portrait of an Artist

A beautiful and haunting documentary about choreographer Alvin Ailey now out from NEON

Ailey is not your typical biographical documentary (praise be). While the new film celebrates the life and work of influential Black dancer/choreographer Alvin Ailey, the editing and flow make Ailey itself a standout, original work of art. Filmmaker Jamila Wignot parallels her storytelling to scenes from workshops of the dance program created by Rennie Harris to honor 60 years of the Ailey Dance Theatre.

From co-workers, friends, and dancers he taught — and even from the artist himself — we learn more about the man behind such works as “Revelations.” Wignot and her team use archived video to illustrate Ailey’s memories of his childhood in Texas and the important place of dance within his home community. While they aren’t exactly scenes from the dancer’s own childhood, the dated film recordings pair so tightly with the stories the viewer hears that it might as well be so. The emotion is the same. As recordings of Ailey’s reminiscences play over dreamlike visuals, it adds a complexity and resonance to the documentary worthy of the original artist himself.

Ailey speaks of how “dance had started to pull at me” as a teenager and the audience hears about the choreographers he learned from before he branched out on his own (although the origin story/founding tale of the Ailey Theatre itself is somewhat glossed over). Bill T. Jones reflects that Ailey “wanted a poetry” to his compositions. Judith Jamison, a dancer who herself would later lead the work of the Ailey Theatre for decades, comments on her experience with the artist; it is a marvel to see clips of her solo performance of his “Cry,” a work choreographed in honor of his mother.

Wignot’s ode to Ailey is reverential, but not hagiographic. The artist is depicted here with his faults and foibles, but in Ailey we still see how his influence permeates through contemporary dance.

Ailey is now open theatrically; it will later play as part of the upcoming season of American Masters on PBS.

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