In the opening scene of Jamila Wignot’s documentary Ailey, we see the late Cicely Tyson paying tribute to the titular Alvin Ailey at the Kennedy Center Honors. In her speech, she honors his impact in the field of dance, declaring that “Alvin Ailey is Black and is universal.” As Wignot reflects on Ailey’s life through the remaining film, this statement proves to be an ideal starting point for this modest documentary, which ultimately spotlights the legacy of Ailey rather than the man himself.
Recalling his humble beginnings in rural Texas, Ailey takes its cues from Ailey’s own recorded voice. Born during the Great Depression and coming of age in the tumultuous years preceding the Civil Rights movement, Ailey explains how his natural inclination towards dance was inspired by the culture and societal struggles of his Black communities. Travelling from Texas to Los Angeles in search of better opportunities, he becomes beguiled by the artform and those past experiences molded his subsequent career as dancer and choreographer. As he incorporated the movements and stories of Black Americans into the traditions of modern dance, the famously humble artistic genius became an unlikely star on the global stage.
Indeed, Ailey became a rare household name through the success of his internationally renowned dance company the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. And Wignot highlights this vividly through interviews and footage recounting the group’s many international tours performed in front of appreciative audiences. Furthermore, the brilliance of his artistry is examined through testimonies from his collaborators, who explain how African-American music, culture and lived experiences informed the uniquely expressive nature of his transcendent style.
But what of the man himself? Despite the antique-like intimacy of Ailey’s muffled voice-over and passionate remembrances of his friends and colleagues, Ailey struggles to fully illuminate his elusive private life and enigmatic persona. The stock imagery used to illustrate the American society of his youth and the tentative mentions of his sexuality reveal little that isn’t already known.
And yet, Ailey still leaves a strong impression from the sheer beauty of his iconic work and the awe-inspiring impact of his legacy. As the documentary captures preparations for a tribute performance to celebrate the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary, one can’t help but be moved by his continued relevance within an ever-changing world. In juxtaposing scenes of modern rehearsals with such touchstones of dance like his seminal “Revelations” choreography, Ailey makes it clear that its namesake is indeed Black, universal and timeless.
Ailey is now playing in select theaters.