January 09, 2022
Jamila Wignot’s documentary about choreographer Alvin Ailey has touching testimonies and a look at his secret private life
Ailey review – absorbing tribute to African American dance icon
Jamila Wignot’s documentary is a tribute to the work of the African American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, a man who grew up in Texas during the Great Depression and Jim Crow years – and embraced his destiny in dance in California, where his mother had taken him as a child while she was looking for work. This film focuses a good deal on Ailey’s most renowned and arguably greatest creation, Revelations (1960), a dance piece inspired by the church and spirituals which had a transcendent passion, a surmounting of the rage and pain of slavery. The generosity and urgency in this work allowed Ailey’s vision to cross boundaries, using dancers’ bodies almost as a kind of folk history of black American experience.
There are some absorbing testimonies from the dancers who worked with him, particularly about the ecstatic ovations his company would get on tour. About a Frankfurt show, one says wonderingly: “I’ve never seen people take their shoes off and hit the wall like that!” Ailey’s own private life as a gay man was opaque, because he was not someone given to joining political movements. The nearest this film comes to criticising him is when his younger dance contemporary, Bill T Jones, says that, despite the Aids crisis, Ailey did not speak out and his sexual identity was covered up “and he participated in the cover-up”.
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