Credit: Jack Mitchell
by Nicholas Yap Featured Film Horizon Line

Ailey | Jamila Wignot

July 21, 2021

Ailey ably captures and reflects its eponymous subject’s abiding vision: art’s capacity as a universal language.

On December 4, 1988, dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of his contributions to modern dance throughout the second half of the 20th century. Almost a year later to the day, the performing arts world would mourn the loss of this visionary and vitalizing force, his lifework ceded to the interpretive whims of future creatives. Arriving close to what would’ve been Ailey’s 90th birthday, Ailey, Jamila Wignot’s moving tribute to his accomplishments and the dance company he founded, draws from a veritable collection of archival sources that ease us into recesses often inhabited by genius.

His story begins amid the sunkissed plains and cotton fields of Depression-era Texas. Ailey’s narration ambles through the worship sessions that defined his early affinity for gospel blues and spirituals, his beleaguered mother’s efforts to provide for the both of them, and a brush with death narrowly avoided by the intervention of his close friend, Chauncey Green. Alongside the thankless rounds of labor that are daily endured by those in Ailey’s hometown also exists a sense of care and convivial warmth. “It was a time where people didn’t have much, but they had each other,” he recounts, set to black-and-white footage of merrymaking. Gradually, this trancelike recreation is disturbed by smears of grain and particulate gathering over the images, blotting out their sketches of communal unity. It’s a detail that is instantly jarring, and it helps attune the viewer to the physical limitations of document-keeping that any attempt at pristine historicization must contend with, while also clueing us into the representative mode to follow — subjective expression opposed to anecdotal specifics or authorial dictates, its meaning decided upon by the beholder. Ailey’s blow-by-blow exposition on his influences, instincts, and the events of his work’s occasioning (such as the passing of his friend, Joyce Trisler, and his mother’s birthday) plays second fiddle to their final enactment, vivifying the crises and concerns of his day. Rejecting a full-bodied elucidation of the creative process and its material, emotional and psychological demands that a more conventional portrait might’ve achieved, Wignot looks instead to the finished product on-stage. In doing so, she wisely forgoes prescriptivist address and rises to meet the demands of Ailey’s abiding vision: art’s capacity, as a universal language, to resonate across arbitrary social markers and academic taxonomy.

All this shouldn’t take the shine off Annukka Lilja and Rebecca Kent’s (editor and archival producer, respectively) impressive work in post-production. Their eye for memorable sequences in the available footage of Ailey’s productions and their proficiency at layering them together lends heft to the otherwise anodyne commentary. Naiti Gámez likewise delivers, situated closer to the present as she lenses the goings-on of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its preparations for a new piece, “Lazarus” (which premiered back in 2018). Her camera keeps dancer and director alike on an even keel, each continually effaced as a minor component in a major constitution whose coherence depends on their most intimate decisions and calculations. Described as Ailey’s final “breath out,” it’s hard not to see the company, unmatched in its trade, as proof of the undying passions and traditions that survive us.

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.