In Ailey the body in motion serves as a canvas. Arms twisting, heads swaying, torsos rolling and feet tapping the floors conjure wells of emotion — pain, lust, sadness and joy. Directed by Jamila Wignot, this stunning documentary chronicles the rich life of Alvin Ailey, the American dance giant, choreographer and founder of the innovative Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Wignot handles details of the legend’s tumultuous biography with great care, honoring his talents while acknowledging the toll they took on him. But perhaps the greatest gift of this tightly conceived and beautiful doc lies in its appreciation of the divinity of dance.
Ailey, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, begins with a powerful clip of the late actress Cicely Tyson at a Kennedy Center tribute for Ailey in 1988. “Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of things. His is a choreography of the heart,” Tyson begins, her eyes briefly meeting Ailey’s. “Alvin Ailey is Black and he’s universal.”
The Bottom Line
A delicate portrait of a legendary figure.
The camera cuts to a performance: A group of women, donning matching mustard yellow suits, sit in chairs evenly spaced out with their backs facing the audience. When the musical beat drops, they quickly flap their fans — also mustard yellow — and turn around before motioning their bodies left and right. The camera pans to Ailey, sitting on the balcony, a stoic look on his face. Solemnly watching the dancers, in that moment he resembles a king holding court.
Wignot’s documentary explores the legacy of Ailey’s kingdom through two main threads. The first takes place sometime in 2018, as a group of dancers rehearse under the watchful gaze of Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey, and the choreographer Rennie Harris. They are preparing a piece on Ailey’s life (“Lazarus”) tied to the 60th anniversary of the company. The significance of the assignment — the weight of representing such a prodigious legacy — hangs in the air. “The history of Ailey is off the scale,” Harris says. “How do you present something like 60 years?”
The second thread of the documentary attempts to map the life of the discipline’s greatest minds, using archival footage and interviews with Ailey’s colleagues and friends such as choreographer Bill T. Jones and dancer Judith Jamison. The objective here is to separate the man from the legend, and to get one step closer to understanding his genius. Their intimate stories reveal a man whose generosity knew no bounds, whose obsession with his craft became punishing and who tragically couldn’t accept the fruits of his labor.
Born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey was incredibly close to his mother, never knew his father and found himself picking cotton when he was just 4 years old. The language Ailey uses to describe his early years is as poetic as his choreography. “I remember being glued to my mother’s hip, sloshing through the terrain, branches slashing against a child’s body,” he says in one clip. “I remember the sunsets. I remember people moving in the twilight.” It’s clear from the documentary that Ailey experienced the world differently; the precision and vivacity of his language makes evident why his dance pieces summoned the feelings they did.
Ailey’s early years were marked by a particular kind of harshness — the kind that causes you to retreat within yourself for safety. But there were glimmers of softness. In one clip, Ailey recalls his relationship with his friend Chauncey, who saved him from drowning. He remembers Chauncey grabbing him and laying down on top of him. “We used to sort of rub up against each other and all that,” he remembers. The implications of this statement are never addressed, but the intimacy Ailey felt at that moment — and his struggle to find it again later in life — becomes one of the film’s primary thematic concerns.
Wignot animates the chronological telling of Ailey’s story with videos of dance pieces that reflect different periods of his life. The choice adds a unique energy to the doc and reaffirms Ailey’s role as a translator. From an early age, he possessed an acute awareness of and fascination with bodies in motion. He understood dance as a tool for expression, a vehicle for building community and a way to embody unfettered freedom. To close out the choreographer’s story about a dance hall he frequented in his youth, where he first experienced dance informally, Wignot inserts a clip of “Blue Suite” (1958). In that piece, figures surround a person sitting in a chair at the center of the stage. He forcefully pushes the other performers away from him before leading them in a slow-motion dance. The piece considers the simultaneity of pain and pleasure in the lives of Black Americans.
When he was 12, Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he gradually discovered a love for theater and formal dance. His passion began with the Black dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and further blossomed when he began taking modern dance classes at Lester Horton’s company. He studied under Horton for several years before founding his own company in 1958.
Wignot outlines the success of Ailey’s company and paints a delicate portrait of the artist’s life. Toward the end of Ailey, a darker thematic element emerges: The choreographer’s ascent and growing celebrity became the primary driver of the deep isolation and sense of loneliness he felt. The filmmaker does not shy away from this melancholic arc, and it makes the doc all the richer. One walks away admiring not just the film’s subject, but its director, too.