Tropic Sprockets / Ailey

By Ian Brockway

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) was a dancer and choreographer. To George Faison, Ailey was a trailblazer making it possible for him and other boys to pursue dancing as an occupation.

In “Ailey,” director Jamila Wignot focuses on the working life of this propulsive choreographer who founded The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Ailey was during the Depression “clinging to his mother’s legs” as he went from place to place. Ailey’s father was absent. He doesn’t remember him. Ailey instead recalls home dance parties, church and nightclubs where the music was funky.

He managed to go to New York and then to Los Angeles where he saw every dance production he could.

Ailey began a friendship with Carmen De Lavallade and became enrolled in the Lester Horton studio.

Ailey was a restless engine. He had concepts and vision. In 1958, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre which would highlight black culture through the vehicle of movement. In 1960 at age 29, the dancer created his signature work Revelations which underscored his autobiographical responses to his church experiences and blues music. In the years following, Ailey took the production on tour in the South as well as overseas in Asia, to wide acclaim.

About midway in his career, the dancers in his company report Ailey seeming remote and distant, not connected to the group. Ailey wraps himself in the folds of a stage curtain and admits he doesn’t know what to do. He is taken to the hospital “fraught and confused”.

Though these details come to light, one gets only sketchy remarks as to Alvin Ailey, the person. Above all, the choreographer’s work was the core of his life.

Ailey’s most confrontational piece, Masekela Language, centers on racism, incarceration and police brutality. In the late 60s, it was met with a complete silence from the audience. Today, sixty years later, it could not be more timely.

In perhaps the most emotional moment of the film, a dancer recalls that Ailey in his last few seconds of life inhaled his breath. “Now we are his breath out,” she says. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is working on a new production of his life in the context of racial unrest and 2020.

“Ailey” the film is an entertaining primer on this great man and artist who clearly felt like his body was an encyclopedia of memories, though his personality and intimacies remain elusive.

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