• Wendy Shreve


You have to be possessed to dance.

--Alvin Ailey

The mid-1970s: a young teen goes to New York City with a school group to watch a dance company. Her mother had raved about this troupe but she wanted to see it for herself. One of the dances was called, "Revelations," starring Judith Jamison, a tour-de-force. To this day, the girl now a woman, can see the images of women whirling across the stage in cotton white dresses. Ailey's choreography, the deeply spiritual music, many songs her mother had sung to her, beckoned her soul.

Years later, this reviewer has had the honor to watch a tribute, Ailey (2021). Finesse, spirit, empathy; love, Director Jamilia Wignot infuses the story with these attributes, reflecting a man that rose above yet celebrated his roots to reach his destiny--to lead the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Raised by a single mother, a migrant worker, in Texas during the Great Depression, Ailey treasured his fractured boyhood in part, because of his loving parent. In the film, He also waxes wistfully over his deep, childhood friendship, which led to Ailey's sexual awakening, that he would leave behind but in his words "never forget."

During his time in Texas, he also watched then reveled in honky-tonks, where those who gathered would shake off their demons through dance and live for the moment. Years later, his mother would bring him to Los Angeles, encourage Ailey to attend cultural performances: from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to the trailblazing Afro-Caribbean dancer, Katherine Dunham. Born to dancing, the soon-to-be choreographer would quickly move on from class to begin his own multi-racial company.

From the beginning of Ailey, a different choreographer's vision is interwoven into the narrative. Rennie Harris attempts to achieve the impossible by exploring Ailey's dances, his personal history to become inspired to create a tribute to the innovator. Judging by the clips of the troupe's rehearsals, Harris had Ailey on his shoulder.

Much of the narration comes from Ailey's own reflections. Others, including Jamison (she succeeded Ailey and served as Artistic Director for twenty-one years), current Artistic Director Robert Battle, former dancers, and his long time stage manager, also contribute their thoughts or "blood memories," as Ailey called them. Cultural, spiritual memories that remain in your veins throughout your life. Pieces such as "Memoria," elegizing company dancer Joyce Tisler and "Phases," that he created after a nervous breakdown. mirror Ailey's outlook.

The choreographer had an eclectic taste in music from Bach to spirituals to Ellington which play an instrumental role in this biography. Along with Nina Simone's songs and other music used for Ailey's ballets, Daniel Bernard Roumain's complimentary soundtrack haunts the documentary, especially in the movie's conclusion.

Alvin Ailey died in 1989 at the age of fifty-eight. His legacy should not be how he died but how his dancers continue to breathe life into his choreography, a nod to his words. No one should miss Ailey. Though categorized as a documentary, the film captures creativity at its best.

#PIFF (Provincetown International Film Festival) selection. Scheduled to be released in theaters July 23, 2021.


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