If, like me (and many others), you’ve seen performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and found them to be spellbinding but know relatively little about the man himself, a documentary like “Ailey” sounds like manna from heaven: a chance to immerse yourself in the life of a singular dance titan — to discover who he was as a human being and as a master builder of modern American movement. Yet “Ailey,” directed by Jamila Wignot, doesn’t always answer the questions you expect it to. It can be a tantalizing watch, but it’s a poetic and meditative documentary that often skimps on the nuts and bolts.
We learn about how Ailey, born in 1931, spent his early years in Texas, raised by a single mother (he never knew his father) with little money or direction; they wandered, and when he was a kid he picked cotton. Wignot uses black-and-white archival footage to evoke what the Texas childhood of a rural African-American during the Depression might have looked like, and the effect is powerfully evocative; even without many family photographs, we feel as if we glimpse the spirit of Ailey’s youth. When he was 12, they moved to Los Angeles, where he sought out every dance performance he could — the Ballet Russe and also Katherine Dunham, the African-American dancer and choreographer whose company, in many ways, pioneered the fusion of highbrow and folk styles that would become an Ailey trademark. Ailey already knew that dance was his destiny.
So far, so fascinating. But then Ailey, who narrates the film in a voice-over of gentle, forthcoming sincerity taken from an extended interview (he died in 1989, from AIDS-related complications), explains that he moved to New York in 1954, when he was 23. My thought was: Here’s where the story gets good — let’s hear about how this beautiful young virtuoso, who danced with the strapping, whirling majesty of someone throwing movement in every direction, came to the big city and made his name, enjoyed his adventures, and had the boldness, imagination, and drive to launch an African-American dance company in 1958.
We never hear how that happened. Instead, the film cuts to a shot of “Revelations,” the 1960 ballet that became the most famous and mythological piece Ailey ever created (in the film, the choreographer Bill T. Jones calls it one of the seminal dances of the 20th century). We see spectacular footage of its original incarnation, and we hear comments about its defining qualities. But all I could think was: How could we be hearing about “Revelations” when the film hasn’t even told us how the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater got off the ground?
“Ailey” simply isn’t that kind of movie. It takes jagged leaps and leaves things out. And it uses the fact that Alvin Ailey was intensely private, a charismatic but elliptical figure who was famously hard to get to know, as a reason to respect and preserve his enigma rather than yearning to discover the man behind it. A film of impressionistic nonfiction like “Ailey” can cast a spell (at times, this one does); it can also leave you with a lot of questions. Yet “Ailey” creates a feeling about Alvin Ailey: how grace and eloquence, fire and obsession merged within him. We see clips of him in rehearsal, a lion of a man but with a teddy-bear side. He demanded perfection (of course) without turning into that cliché of the dance maestro as sadistic taskmaster.
His ambition was consuming. The extraordinary “Blues Suite,” the ballet that launched the company in 1958, indicates that Ailey, had he wanted to go in more of a pop direction, could have beaten Bob Fosse to the flouncy, hipster-hatted, hip-shake punch. But Ailey craved the lyrical expressiveness of unalloyed ballet. He poured the American Black experience through that rarefied mold in a way that had never been done before, and in doing so he redefined an art form.
In the offstage clips we see of Ailey, he comes off as an affable man, with very little pretension. But his demons were hidden away, and “Ailey” has a way of alluding to them without fully revealing them. We’re told that he was a romantic loner, but did he have a lot of relationships (however short-lived) or a steady parade of lovers? As a gay man, did he feel at all compelled to keep his sexual identity hidden? We hear from figures like Judith Jamison, his dance muse in the company from 1965 on, and Mary Barnett, the company’s former associate artistic director, about how perpetually overworked he felt — but for some artists, like Picasso (or Fosse), work was a drug, and surely Ailey set his own parameters for what he wanted to accomplish.
How did fame affect him? How did he negotiate the white power structure? (Bill T. Jones says that the cultural mainstream used him, because it could now say, “We’re not racist — we’ve got Alvin Ailey.”) We’re told about the mental breakdown Ailey suffered in the early ’80s, but it remains vague, since the film never reveals he was diagnosed as manic-depressive (as bipolar disorder was then known). At one point a dancer illustrates Ailey’s privacy by saying that in all the years he was in the company he was only invited over to Ailey’s home once. But that just made me think, Why doesn’t the movie show us where he lived? What part of the city was it in? Was it an apartment, a townhouse?
As much as I wanted to know those things, “Ailey” leaves out many particulars about Alvin Ailey in order to shine a light on a certain ineffable sadness in him. He spoke of wanting his dances to channel “blood memories,” meaning the collective memories of parents and ancestors and, through them, the experience — the oppression and resilience — of being Black in America. Ailey, in many ways, led a charmed life, yet the blood memories flowed through him; he danced them because he felt them. “Ailey” is framed by rehearsal footage of the Alvin Ailey company preparing a 60th anniversary tribute to him (in 2018), and their steps are like a dance-walk through history. “Ailey” may not tell you as much as you want to know about Alvin Ailey, but it hauntingly evokes his identity as a dance alchemist who took the ache and exhilaration of the past and made it timeless.