Those looking for insights into what made genius African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey tick may be disappointed, but Jamila Wignot’s documentary works beautifully as an almost impressionistic representation of the poetic and thrilling newness of the artist’s work.
Born in 1931 to a single mother in Depression-era Texas, Ailey’s upbringing was a tough – he picked cotton alongside his mother- but an evidently happy one, as he found delight in the music of the local gospel churches and juke joints. When he was twelve, they moved to the more culturally rich Los Angeles where the young man immersed himself in dance performance. Then in 1954 the twenty-three-year-old moved to New York where he quickly made a name for himself in the dance scene. Four years later he formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre where he produced ground-breaking pieces which explored the African-American experience. International fame and acclaim followed.
Carrying the dance troupe pretty much single-handed, began to take its toll on the mental health of the already addicted Alvin, resulting in spells in an institution. He contracted AIDs in the 80s.
Narration is provided via archive recordings of Ailey and present-day talking head interviews with his colleagues, although tellingly not friends or non-dance scene acquaintances. The picture is good in sketching out his early hardscrabble formative years, but unsatisfyingly sketchy on his Los Angeles and New York period, and the obstacles the choreographer Ailey must have undoubtedly encountered in setting up such a revolutionary troupe. Nor is his life as a gay man as in the turbulent 80s explored in any depth, meaning Ailey ultimately remains an elusive and enigmatic figure.
Still, the picture achieves a real poetry through in its deployment of archive footage of his pieces, most notably the ground-breaking beautiful ‘Revelations’ with the deteriorated, grainy quality of the archive film and video footage, coupled with some inspired rhythmic editing imbuing the picture with a poetic, mythical feel, at times redolent of Jean Cocteau’s cinema at his most weightless and dreamlike.
Ailey is out 4th January
Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm