• Film

Docs: “Ailey” – Portrait of a Legendary Figure

Born in 1931, Alvin Ailey Jr., the pioneering African-American dancer, director, and choreographer, who helped change the landscape of modern dance, would have been 90 this year. It is therefore appropriate that a new documentary, Ailey directed by Jamila Wignot, would be released now to commemorate his various achievements, specifically his creation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) and its affiliated, Ailey School. Both were envisioned as strategic sites for nurturing Black artists and for expressing the African American experience through dance.


Wignot first discovered the work of the Ailey American Dance Theater by attending a performance while she was a student at Wellesley College. Her feature made two decades later, dwells on the unique attributes of his work, which fused modern dance, ballet, jazz, and theatricality with a particular Black vernacular. For instance, Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece, “Revelations,” recognized as one of the most performed ballets in the world, blended primitive, modern and jazz elements of dance with concern for Black rural America.

The end result was a brand of choreography, incomparable to any other at the time, which was meant to spread global awareness of the black life in America through motion. The documentary chronicles his life by using archival footage and interviews with Ailey’s colleagues and friends such as choreographer Bill T. Jones and celebrated dancer Judith Jamison.

Ailey begins with a clip of the late actress Cicely Tyson at a 1988 Kennedy Center tribute. “Alvin Ailey has a passion for movement that reveals the meaning of things. His is a choreography of the heart,” Tyson states, “Alvin Ailey is Black and he’s Universal.” Wignot’s documentary explores the legacy of Ailey by including an extended segment set in 2018 when a group of dancers rehearses under the guidance of Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey, and the choreographer Rennie Harris. They are preparing a piece on Ailey’s life (“Lazarus”) for the company’s 60th anniversary. The assignment is both a burden and a blessing, as Harris confesses: “The history of Ailey is off the scale, how do you present something like 60 years?”

Born in Rogers, Texas, Ailey the boy was close to his mother, and never knew his father; he began picking cotton when he was four. “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 stunning sunsets, and the people moving in the twilight.” An ultra-sensitive boy, Ailey experienced the world differently than other boys, and that unique sensibility later found expression in his dance pieces, which were formally constructed yet highly emotionally felt pieces.

Ailey recalls a bond with his friend Chauncey, who once saved him from drowning by grabbing him and laying on top of him. “We used to sort of rub up against each other and all that,” he says. Yet the effect of this and other intimate encounters are never discussed by him as a mature man and artist.

Wignot animates Ailey’s story with videos of specific dance pieces that reflect different phases of his life. She inserts a clip of “Blues Suite,” a piece he had experienced in a dance hall, which left an impact on his future work. In that piece, a single person is sitting in a chair center-stage, first seen pushing the other performers away from him, before later leading them in a slow-motion dance.

From an early age, he showed an acute awareness of the almost limitless potential of the human body in motion. When he was 12, Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he discovered a love for formal dance. He always credited the Black choreographer Katherine Dunham for influencing his career, motivating him to take classes at Lester Horton’s company for several years before founding his own company in 1958 (at age 27).

For Ailey, dance was a venue for personal expression, as well as a channel for building an arts-oriented Black community, which existed in the periphery and was little known or recognized in mainstream American culture of the 1960s. The intimate stories from colleagues and friends reveal a man blessed with remarkable generosity and boundless energy, whose obsession with work was both rewarding and punitive.

Indeed, there was a price to be paid for his mounting success and celebrity status, which led, per his (and others) accounts, to growing feelings of isolation and loneliness. The filmmaker centers on Ailey’s melancholy as a mature man, obsessed with channeling all of his energy into work, leaving few outlets for a richer private life.

Like the choreographer himself, this documentary feature tries (though not always effectively) to understand Ailey’s creative genius by separating the private man from the public legend that was cultivated by him and appreciative critics. Both a complex and complicated artist, Ailey was in many ways a product (and a victim) of his socialization. He loathed the label “Black choreographer,” insisting that he was simply a choreographer. He was famously private about his homosexuality, going out of his way to keep in secrecy his romantic affairs.

Here was a towering figure, who created universally acclaimed art, deeply steeped in personal experience, yet too anxious to openly share his true identity throughout his whole life.

In 1980, after the death of his friend Joyce Trisler, a failed relationship, and bouts of heavy drinking and drug abuse, Ailey suffered a mental breakdown, and was diagnosed as manic depressive (known today as bipolar disorder).

Ailey died from an AIDS-related illness on December 1, 1989, at the young age of 58. In keeping with his character, he requested his doctor that the cause of his death be declared as terminal blood dyscrasia in order to shield his mother (and his fans) from the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS back then.

But the legacy of the artist and his oeuvre continues to prevail. On July 15, 2008, the U.S. Congress designated AAADT (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the World.” That same year, in recognition of AAADT’s 50th anniversary, the then Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared December 4 as “Alvin Ailey Day” in New York City.