Tuesday, March 29, 2022


Judith Jamison

Alvin Ailey with his mother

Alvin Ailey, 1965

Alvin Ailey, 1986

Director Jamila Wignot















AILEY – made for TV                         B+                                                                                     USA  (94 mi)  2021  d: Jamila Wignot

Sometimes your name becomes bigger than yourself.  Do you really know who that is?           —Carmen de Lavallade

Made for the American Masters TV series, long overdue, as the subject is an American treasure, Alvin Ailey, dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Troupe, one of the world’s most renowned modern dance companies, which has gone on to perform for an estimated 25 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents.  Presenting works that speak to the black American experience, blending important works of the past with newly commissioned works, more than 235 works by over 90 choreographers have been part of the company’s repertory.  Much of it told in his own words, featuring rarely seen archival footage along with interviews of those who knew and worked with him, Wignot’s documentary is a revealing exposé on the life of a black artist in America seeking to define himself when there was literally no outlet for his creativity, yet he burst on the scene anyway, founding his own dance company in 1958.   The film opens with a brief introductory segment in 1988 with Cicely Tyson presenting Ailey with a Kennedy Center Honor for a lifetime contribution to American culture, with a cut to President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy applauding cheerfully, an ironic twist to the festivities, as Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis, waiting four years after the crisis began before publicly acknowledging AIDS, well after nearly 90,000 thousand had already died.  Coming just a year prior to his death, dying at age 58 from complications from AIDS, the film cuts to the current Upper West Side Manhattan headquarters of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Troupe in New York, which includes a massive window-lined rehearsal hall substantially larger than any stage, as choreographer Rennie Harris, flanked by company associate Masazumi Chaya, introduces Artistic Director Robert Battle as they begin rehearsals on a larger work entitled Lazarus delving into aspects of the life of Alvin Ailey, like a memory play, peeling back the layers of his life, honoring the 60th anniversary of the company he founded.  The true star of the show, however, is uncredited rehearsal director Nina Flagg, who leads them in “irk and jerk” hip-hop movements, with bodies popping in motion, adding an electric choreographed synchronicity, where this kick-starts the film into gear, Ailey dancers perform an excerpt from 'Lazarus,' together while apart YouTube (2:08).  It’s a blistering tribute to the beauty of dance movement, as Ailey sought to convey truth through movement, becoming a study of the man and his enduring vision.  Taking us back to his childhood during the Depression, mixing in archival footage with audio interviews of Ailey, rarely ever heard speaking about himself, let alone in such an unguarded fashion, as he grew up in rural Texas, never knowing his father, raised by his mother, “I remember the sunsets.  I remember people moving in the twilight,” recalling being carried on her hip as she moved from place to place looking for work, picking cotton, cleaning white folks homes, even witnessing her being raped by a white man when he was just 5-years old.  He also recalls sneaking out at night to visit the juke joints, marveling in the freedom of expression and the pleasure of watching others dance, but he also remembers experiences with a best friend, saved from nearly drowning, with his friend covering his body, lying on top of one another, offering a titillating sensation.  At age 12, his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he had to hide his interest in dance, which for boys was viewed as being a sissy, with a coach asking him to try out for the football team, but he had no interest in knocking people down.  Instead, at 14 he watched a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that literally changed his life, as he wanted to see more of that.  What particularly inspired him was watching a performance of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, viewing it as a revelation, as it reflected the black experience, taking dance to new heights, finding himself taking classes with Lester Horton, one of the first racially integrated dance schools in America, sitting way up in a corner, never doing anything until Horton finally moved him onstage to see what he could do, eventually joining his dance company in the early 50’s alongside his high school friend Carmen de Lavallade, taking over as the artistic director of the dance troupe when Horton died suddenly.            

Early footage of Ailey dancing is seen, young and muscular, partnering with Carmen de Lavallade, as he began to choreograph his own works.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, Ailey danced in shows starring Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne (no mention is made of his performing act with Maya Angelou), while performing in four Broadway shows, including House Of Flowers, gaining some notoriety, but once the run was over, he quickly lost all his contacts, where he was simply left all on his own, as there was no future for a black dancer and choreographer, who also happened to be gay, so he began to question himself, where much of this film revolves around those existential questions, for which he had no answers at the time, as there was no model to draw inspiration from.  Instead he had to look inward, as he was just 27-years old when he formed his own dance company with just 7 dancers, discovering his unique voice as a creative artist, recalling ancestral “blood memories” when he choreographed Blues Suite, just his 6th ballet, set in a sporting house, or brothel during the Depression, where men and women who frequent the place flirt, drink, and dance all night to the music of the blues, while morning brings the sound of a train and church bells.  Ailey put real people onstage, characters pulled out of his rural Texas childhood, who were largely underrepresented in the American theater.  Ailey, for instance, preceded playwright August Wilson in the stage theater by more than a decade, with both uniquely chronicling the black experience of 20th century America.  Ailey took his company on the road, all stuffed into one station wagon, including costumes, lighting, and stage props, while staying in some flimsy motels along the way, as it was during the Jim Crow era when blacks were still designated to segregated areas.  Bill Hammond, the white stage manager, sent pictures of the entire ensemble to the motels ahead of time so they would not be surprised when they arrived, as being turned away at the door would have a devastating impact on the dignity and morale of the group.  In 1960, Ailey released his signature work, Revelations, which even today remains a staple of their repertoire, performed continuously around the globe, a celebration transcending faith and nationality, probably seen by more people around the world than any other modern dance, taking audiences back to church spirituals, gospel songs, and the holy blues, exploring the deepest grief and the most jubilant hallelujahs, expressing the heart and soul of the black church, where houses of worship provided a safe sanctuary since the days of slavery, offering salvation and hope, becoming part of the inner consciousness and collective identity of black people in America, Revelations - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater YouTube (33:44).  For Ailey, he wanted his dance troupe to offer a similar safe space, where his dancers could act as diplomats gracefully guiding audiences along a spiritual and historical journey.  In 1962, President Kennedy sent the Ailey company to tour the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Australia as part of a good will ambassador tour, the first black company asked to participate, Ailey Dancers in the Streets of Paris YouTube (1:52).  The film also includes many performances by the phenomenal Judith Jamison, an Ailey dancer who joined the company in 1965, becoming the star for fifteen years before succeeding Ailey as the Artistic Director after his death in 1989, a role she assumed for the next 21 years, succeeded by Robert Battle in 2011.  When describing Revelations, Jamison revealed, “What took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence.  That was the miracle.”  Jamison and Lavallade appear as interview subjects in the film, along with former dancers and company associates George Faison, Mary Barnett, Sylvia Waters, Sarita Allen, Masazumi Chaya, and choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose modernist approach was brought in to keep abreast with the times.  While all shared experiences, perhaps only Jones, with his unapologetic candor, attempted to answer the lingering question of just who Alvin Ailey was as a man and fellow artist, suggesting he wanted to transcend the restrictive label of being a black artist, as artists may create beautiful things, but they also have to give representation to the turbulence of the times as well as their own troubled inner spirits.  “What about the troubled artist, who is often turned in and barbed?”  Part of the transparency of dance is that the choreographer has to reveal so much of himself onstage, suggesting “This was a very vulnerable thing to witness.  But I saw him really trying to go in search of what I believe had probably made him a choreographer.  He wanted a poetry.”

While very few dance movies hold up over time, cinema instead features dance as an integral part of a larger feature, like Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972) or All That Jazz (1979), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, and a whole host of MGM musicals, yet what stands out for superlatives are the 17-minute long Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance sequence from Vincente Minnelli’s AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951), “An American in Paris Ballet” Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Ensemble “An American in Paris” (1951) YouTube (8:31), a magical scene in film history taking viewers on a tour of French art history, or the extended Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale ballet in Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES (1948), The Ballet - The Red Shoes (1948) YouTube (20:56), one of the most visually astounding 20-minute sequences ever made, a celebration of artistic obsession and a cautionary tale, with suggestions that you may have to die for your art.  As for uniquely original films entirely based upon dancing, Wim Wenders’ Pina in 3D (2011) comes to mind, though Frederick Wiseman’s exquisitely beautiful BALLET (1995) may be the most captivating, a near three-hour tour de force documentary made exclusively from behind-the scenes rehearsal footage mixed with largely unedited onstage performances.  What makes this film so compelling is the way Wignot creates an intensely personalized dialogue between the present and the past, where the 60th anniversary choreography footage of Lazarus contrasts with the entirety of Ailey’s work, literally resurrecting his entire career, where the work becomes an intricately connected memory piece.  His dances were revolutionary social statements expressed with a theatrical flourish, creating an extroverted style of dancers with strong personalities and identifiable skills, as powerful in his own time as ours today.  Ailey makes black life indispensable to the American story, deserving a central place on the world stage as quintessential American art, created by a working class, gay black man who rose to prominence in a society that systematically strove to exclude him, transforming the world of dance for those on the margins.  Reveling with a multiracial sense of pride, audiences around the world responded to his themes of oppression, personal struggle, and transcendence.  In 1971, almost in secret, he choreographed a new piece for Judith Jamison entitled Cry as a surprise birthday present to his mother who was celebrating her birthday in New York, featuring a female dancer clad in a white leotard and a long ruffled skirt, Alvin Ailey and the AMAZING Donna Wood in CRY 1982 YouTube (10:31), taking the audience on a journey of bitter sorrow, brutal hardship, and ecstatic joy, dedicated to “all black women everywhere – especially our mothers.”  Yet perhaps harder to find is the man behind the curtain, a largely closeted figure spending a great deal of his career isolated and alone, a gay man closely watched by the FBI, referring to Ailey’s homosexuality as “lewd and criminal tendencies,” threatening his company with bankruptcy if he showed any signs of effeminate or homosexual behavior while on tour, leading a solitary life, even at the height of his success, suggesting there was an elusive man inside the man that few ever knew, rarely confiding his personal pressures even within his inner circle.  A melancholic tone pervades throughout the film, as he seems to have lost himself in his workaholism, fame, and success, where questions remain how a black man made it in a predominately white world, evoking other questions that are painfully urgent and personal, often taking him to a dark place.  It hit him hard losing one of his premiere dancers and closest friends, Joyce Tisler, from an untimely death in her 40’s, or the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of a lover, Abdullah, brought to New York after having met in Paris.  He retreated into that mental space fraught with personal anguish and pain, suffering a mental breakdown requiring hospitalization, before dying all too young from AIDS during the New York AIDS scare of the 80’s, something he tried to hide, a time when people’s appearances were changing, getting thinner and seemingly dying everywhere, with Ailey having to choose a suitable successor to run his treasured dance company.  Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones insightfully offers his own assessment, “Men are men on Ailey’s stage and women are women on Ailey’s stage, and they are exemplary, and they are the survivors of racism and slavery, and they are beautiful and they are strong, and they will live forever and leap higher and higher.  And you’re telling me that they have sex?  And they have sex that could kill them?  You’re telling me Mr. Ailey himself?  Oh, that’s too much.  That’s too much.  We have to edit that out of the history.  And he participated in the editing of it.  He was alone.  What community of gay people was he with that could say, ‘Alvin, this is happening to us’?”  Yet it’s that rhythmically intricate footwork from Lazarus that leaves us with a spiritual force that’s uplifting, accentuating dancing with an irresistible beat, featuring the glorious music of Nina Simone, coming from a choreography based on a Philadelphia dance stepping style called GQ.  More than anything, however, Ailey understood dance as a tool for personal transcendence that epitomized an idealized freedom and liberation through movement, a catharsis for the bleak realities of the human experience, offering dreamlike visions evoking the full range of human emotions, like carefully preserved time capsules for the future.  

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