Filmmaker JAMILA WIGNOT’S new documentary of modern dance auteur , the tortured genius Alvin Ailey makes for such hypnotic viewing. With a combination of audio interviews with the man himself and some breath taking archival footage of his early performances, she gives an intimate portrait of one of the greatest interpreters of the universality of the African-American experience .
Wignot bases her film around a production of “Lazarus,” a new piece in honor of Ailey, which the present day Ailey company rehearses under the direction of ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ROBERT BATTLE and choreographer RENNIE HARRIS. But in between she starts with Ailey’s poverty stricken childhood with his single parent mother struggling to survive the Depression in 1930’s Texas.
His very tight bond with his mother lasts his entire life, until it is cut short in 1989 when he dies of AIDS aged 58. In order to shield her from the stigma of AIDS, he asks his Doctor to announce his death was from a blood disease.
In 1941 when he was just 10 years old he and his mother moved to Los Angelas for ‘ a better life’ and that was where he first discovered dance in the form of BALLET RUSSE DE MONTE-CARLO. He was totally hooked watching, but too afraid of the potential negative name calling, he never considered dancing himself. That is until his classmate and friend CARMEN DE LAVALLADE dragged him to the studio of LESTER HORTON, and the die was cast. It was De Lavallade who was also responsible for his next move when, when she and Ailey were cast as a dancing couple in a Broadway Show.
This was the beginning of his success as a dancer, but Ailey was very frustrated and at being unable to find a choreographer whose work fulfilled him, he started gathering dancers to perform his own Company.
It was 1958, and he had only been in NY for 4 years, and the new ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER soon had its debut at the 92ND STREET Y That performance included Ailey’s first masterpiece, Blues Suite, and two years later he premiered his most popular and critically acclaimed work, REVELATIONS, In creating Revelations Ailey drew upon his “blood memories” of growing up in Texas surrounded by Black people, the church, spirituals, and the blues.
It was not all plain sailing as former members recalled of the hardships of performing low budget tours around the country. All squeezed on a single bus dashing from city to city and having to staying in shabby motels which were the only ones to accept their mixed race Company.
However most of them, and several other figures from the dance world that lined up to testify to Ailey’s sheer genius. talked so admiringly about the choreographer, but not about the man. We learn later that he suffered from bipolar disorder which landed him a spell in a mental institution, but little more about his personal life.
One dancer commented that throughout his 15 year tenure with the Company and the good relationship he had enjoyed with Ailey, he had still only hung out with him once socially.
Even though Ailey hated being called a ‘black choreographer he had formed the Company to celebrate African American culture and to provide performances for black dancers, who were frequently denied opportunities due to racist mores of the time. But his sexuality was a total no-go area, although the film refers to one known affair, there is no other real reference to him being gay. It is suggested however that being closeted was a cause of his unhappiness and his regular bouts of depression.
This film gives such wonderful examples of Ailey’s stunning work and will totally delight his fans, but on the other hand it is still disappointing that we did not learn much about the great man himself. There was talk last year of Oscar Winner BARRY JENKINS (Moonlight) was working on a biopic on Ailey, maybe he’ll fill in the missing gaps them