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Sundance 2021 ‘Ailey’ Review: A Detailed, Emotional Document of a Legend Who Resisted Legendary Status

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Too many biographies worship their subject to the point of dehumanizing them. Projects like these may have all the love in the world for whichever great person they aim to lionize, and certainly there have been some figures who deserve to be remembered as heroic leaders, ingenious creatives, or possessors of almost otherworldly talent. Jamila Wignot’s new film, a multifaceted and thorough portrait of legendary dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, is not one of those projects. Through her incisive choices and assured direction, Wignot has crafted a much more responsible, curious type of bio-doc — one that reconsiders the hagiographic approach by illuminating the harm that same approach wrought on Ailey himself. 

The film is not in itself particularly revolutionary in many other respects, it must be said. In truth, the more revelatory discoveries feel almost accidental, while the rest of the film is mostly a fairly rote version of the “great person in 20th century culture” documentaries which have been springing up absolutely everywhere for the past ten years or so. That said, Ailey is such a seminal figure in 20th century culture that it is a wonder this film has only just been made now. 

Proof of his influence (and the film’s somewhat predictable approach) comes early, in a framing device concerning the modern iteration of Ailey’s American Dance Theatre rehearsing for the company’s 60th anniversary commemoratory performance. Choreographer Rennie Harris leads the company, and offers insights on how and why Ailey’s memory lives on through these svelte young bodies. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ailey’s legacy lies not only in beautiful, accomplished forms of movement, Harris and others explain, but in the expression, exultation, and celebration of Black joy. Even in his works that directly implicate decades and centuries of mistreatment and anguish in Black communities, Ailey highlighted what is nonetheless beautiful, graceful, loving, and romantic about African-American people, life, and culture. Some gorgeous archival footage illustrates his early works of the 1950s, and credit is due to Wignot and her team for finding truly stunning examples and pristine prints of both Ailey’s pieces and the man himself, laughing and socializing behind the scenes. The documentary does feel slightly rushed when discussing his rise to celebrity status, but in fairness, that only reflects how meteoric and sudden his transition from newcomer to cause célèbre really was. 

Of course, that is part of the overarching tragedy; a humbling real-life instance of the Icarus-esque tales Hollywood likes to tell about itself. Through no fault of his own — except, perhaps, an over-reliance on his own independence — Ailey was thrust into the spotlight with little to ground him, and for the rest of his life was faced with insurmountable pressures from all sides. This was particularly true when white America exalted Ailey as “proof” of American progress, casting him as a poster boy for the country’s cultural open-mindedness even while almost every other facet of American society demonstrated exactly the opposite. Given how frequently we keep having to explain how corrosive whiteness can be to Black culture, this is a fascinating subject. Ailey became one of the most respected and visible choreographers in the world, but it cost him a significant amount of privacy and freedom to experiment, and inadvertently warped the fabric of American race relations even further. A curious, confounding result. 

In exploring these quandaries, Ailey introduces its most inquisitive and memorable thread. The very idea of hagiography was anathema to Ailey’s vision of himself and of dance as a concept. To him, this art was something to be shared; one that let each performer, choreographer, and even audience member express or see themselves in each carefully justified movement. And yet, Ailey’s belief in this very philosophy elevated his name to such heights that it became bigger than the actual man could handle.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Wignot does very well to let this section of the film delve deep into the increasing despair visited upon Ailey by fame, notoriety, and inescapable centrality. One interviewee puts it perfectly: he preferred to be “a” great Black man of American dance, not “the” great Black man of American dance. Harris invites an interesting interpretation of Ailey’s work, suggesting that most of it seems to be imploring the audience to hear him: after failing to find the words through which to express himself, he resorted to movement and stillness to compensate, using dance as a language. These threads grow even more meaningful as the documentary begins to discuss Ailey’s homosexuality, which seemed to both further isolate him from certain communities and enable him to grasp the complexities of repressed identity. However, as the last few sections detail his unfortunate downfall, more staid devices return, and much of the film’s finale feels similar to the hagiographies we have all seen before. 

Where Wignot does cleverly re-write the structure of the typical biography, the film shows its best qualities. Significant portions highlight the example of Ailey’s company — in both the personal and professional senses of the word — that he gathered, led, and inspired. Professionally, the modern-day rehearsals and wide-ranging interview subjects speak to the legacy of his American Dance Theater. Personally, the even wider-ranging group of Ailey‘s participants who knew him, followed him, and loved him represents his personable, intoxicating verve, and just hearing from such a devoted group is proof enough of his commendable legacy. In short, while the final film does not overcome all the shortfalls of hagiography, the subject himself is so intriguing and beloved that the experience of watching Ailey proves mostly worthwhile. 

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