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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Ailey ***

Director: Jamila Wignot

Country: USA

In 1958, choreographer Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Having worked as a dancer in New York, he felt that as an African-American, choreography at the time did not reflect who he was and what he thought dance should be. Over the following years, the profile of his dance company sky-rocketed as likeminded dancers flocked to become a part of his work, culminating with the seminal performance of Revelations, which premiered in 1960 and went on to become one of the most popular and most performed ballets in the world.

In this documentary, recordings of Ailey in interview are used over a retrospective of his career, from his earliest days as a dancer, charting his rise to stardom, becoming one of the foremost choreographers in the industry, following right through to his death from AIDS in 1989. Interviews from dancers, collaborators and critics serve to underscore his genius and cement his iconic status. There is no doubt that this is a prestige piece – and rightfully so – but it is also a portrait of a flawed and troubled man.

Ailey’s sexuality is particularly explored in the film’s final act. Having built a prestigious black artistic institution, he felt an immense weight on his shoulders to powerfully represent his community, but felt this was undermined by his diagnosis with HIV. When the virus was still considered something dirty and shameful, he felt that his diagnosis would lead to the downfall of all he had created. A fascinating glimpse inside the mind behind the movement, this is an illuminating portrait of the fears of this dance legend, who overcame the limitations of his race, but was unable to surmount those of his sexuality.

The film succeeds greatly with underlining Ailey’s cultural significance. Where the film unfortunately fails is explaining to the uninitiated why his work is so seminal within the art form. The best autobiographies succeed in explaining to those unfamiliar with the work of its subject what, how and why their work is considered so highly. In this case, we’re told repeatedly that his work is remarkable without any clear demonstration of why.

A respectful, reverent and interesting portrait of Ailey, this is essential viewing for disciples of dance. For the rest of us, there is enough to learn who he was, but not to explain his renown.

UK Release: 7th January 2022 in cinemas, released by Dogwoof. AILEY director Q&A hosted by Bonnie Greer screens in cinemas on 4th January, book now:


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