He was, Cicely Tyson’s warm voice told the audience at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, “a Pied Piper of modern dance.” Choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, spent his relatively short life bringing dance to the world: through his company’s international tours; through his constant dedication to educational outreach; and through the millions of audience members who saw, in dances like his sublime “Revelations,” Ailey’s vision of Black life as universal art.
Jamila Wignot’s documentary “Ailey” arrives more than three decades after the choreographer’s death in 1989 (he died at 58, of an AIDS-related blood disorder). But the company lives on, and Wignot wisely frames her film with contemporary scenes of Ailey dancers learning a new work, from choreographer Rennie Harris, inspired by Ailey’s life in honor of the company’s 60th anniversary. You can feel the heat in the bright studio as step joins step, as a vibrant mass of bodies begins to tell a story.
And “Ailey” tells another story: that of a Texas boy growing up in poverty with a single mother who supported her son by working in the fields, and of a young man who fell in love with dance after seeing performances by Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. He became intrigued, he tells us in interview footage, by the idea of dancing “not just to do a step, but to feel something about the step.” His remarkable talent was visible early: He was 27 when he first formed his company, which initially performed at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and 29 when “Revelations,” created from his memories of church and community, made its premiere. Set to gospel music and lyrically exploring both eloquent pain and exuberant joy, the dance quickly became the company’s trademark, and remains so today.
“Ailey” explores the choreographer’s busy years in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, as he blended art and activism while performing and touring worldwide. But there was another story, one less told: Ailey, described as deeply private, struggled not only with the toll of racism and homophobia, but with mental illness. Voice after voice in the documentary cite his isolation. “Creation is a very lonely place,” notes the choreographer George Faison, “in the fact that no one can help you.”
Very ill near the end of his life, Ailey kept working, sometimes from on a couch in his dance studio. Judith Jamison, who spent her career with the Ailey company as a dancer and later as artistic director, describes how Ailey, in death, simply inhaled, never breathing out again. “We are his breath out,” she says urgently. “We are.” And we see the dancers in the studio, joyfully twisting and stretching their bodies to music, catching his breath.
In the film, we’re able to see Ailey during the Kennedy Center honors, watching intently as “Revelations” is performed; he looks like he’s carefully checking it, making sure it’s perfect, wondering if it could be better — the artist watching the art. You leave “Ailey” hoping that, somewhere, he’s watching still.