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Cultural Movement

Jack Mitchell/Sundance Institute

Ailey (2021)

This documentary about the life of choreographer Alvin Ailey, who created world-standard dance pieces while still in his 20s, combines archive footage, modern talking-head interviews and rehearsal room footage of the present Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers at work to make clear the legacy he left behind. Masters of modern American dance, including Carmen De Lavallade and Bill T. Jones, explain the nature of his work, the impact it had on international audiences, including an overwhelming reception in Australia and a night of 30 curtain calls in Moscow. But Jamila Wignot’s film has two serious problems, one with the life and one with the work, that hamstring the film.

The first is this: Ailey was not only someone who achieved worldwide and lifetime fame and success in his 20s, but also a black gay man. This meant he was an unusually private person – he never made any relationships public, and a colleague who worked with him for over 30 years went to his apartment exactly once. The information on this aspect of his life died with him when he passed from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, so archive recordings and the memories of his friends must do the work, so unfortunately conjecture and the occasional party foul are given more credit than they are due. On the other hand, the aspects of his life which led to the creation of his various pieces are polished past anecdote into recitation, both by Ailey’s recordings and by his friends. The attention paid to the individual dances is thoughtful and close, and completely obscures the fact of the founding of his namesake dance company and its operational history goes completely unmarked. It’s a bewildering lacuna. Was the creative company a ragtag group of friends who decided to hitch their wagons to his star, or a large-scale pragmatic business choice in the face of the insular-slash-racist dance culture of New York City? Ms. Wignot doesn’t get into it.

Considering the company has survived over 60 years to become a keystone of cultural life in New York City, and a conduit for black American dance around the world, this is a peculiar elision. It would also have been interesting to hear what the company’s current dancers think of the work they continue, but that would have turned this fully into an exploration of the art a life leaves behind.


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