July 23, 2021
Near the end of Jamila Wignot's immersive documentary on Alvin Ailey, he states in very clear terms, "I want it to be easier than it was for me" (EYE ON DANCE, 1989). Clearly, the man who built the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had a vision that included an "easier" future for the next generation of BIPOC and LGBTQ dancers.
Ailey's life unfolds in a series of potent archival clips, performance footage and friends' reminiscences. A complicated man, Ailey and his mother left the heat and dirt of Texas for LA when he was 12 years old. While money was scarce, inspiration peaked in the form of dance. First smitten with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, later he was awed by the Dunham Dance Company. Ultimately, his dance career was defined by Lester Horton, one of the first people to run a multi-racial dance company and studio. Horton became Ailey's lifelong role model.
Thrilling black-and-white footage captures Ailey's full-throated, emotionally committed performances. Oddly, much of the critical archival footage is not credited and neither are the dancers who appear in rehearsal segments one-on-one with Ailey (i.e., Ailey rehearses Donna Wood in Masekela Langage). Citation details enrich our grasp of the time-line and our engagement with the material.
The film faithfully maps out Ailey's growth during the Civil Rights Movement, the wild success of Ailey's masterpiece set to gospel music Revelations (Ailey confesses to Harry Belafonte -- in a 1978 Dance in America program--he tires of the demands to program Revelations), as well as a grueling touring schedule and demands to keep a company afloat in NYC. These stressors contribute to Ailey's mental breakdown sensitively revealed through poignant reflections by Ailey's close dance family members. Mary Barnett, Sylvia Waters, George Faison and Bill Hammond are just a few of the artists who affectionately round-out the story of Ailey.
The Ailey lineage continues through the company and a new crop of choreographers. For the purposes of the film, we enter the Ailey Company rehearsal room several times to observe street dance based choreographer Rennie Harris create his one-hour production piece called Lazarus as an homage to Ailey and the struggles of so many black artists.
Ailey was a trailblazer who concertized his lived experiences and celebrated not only the works of black choreographers, but at a time when modern dance was predominantly performed to classical or modern music, he embraced America's jazz, gospel and pop music.
Impressively edited, the richly varied look of the film is composed of countless visual images sliding over spoken words and music.
Trained on Ailey's personal landscape, Wignot's film bends towards Ailey's emotional arc rather than his life-long challenges keeping a company solvent, attracting audiences, and coping with the critics.
Because of Ailey's passion and compassion, the 21st century Ailey company led by Robert Battle is in the black, sells out houses and attracts praise from critics.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis