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“Sometimes your name becomes bigger than yourself.  Do you really know who that is or what it is?  Alvin Ailey, You see a name but I don’t see a man.”  This observation by Carmen De Lavallade, a dancer and choreographer, is not just a poignant observation but also a good way to describe the documentary “Ailey” that looks at the life of dance legend Alvin Ailey.  “Ailey ” focuses on what made him the dancer and choreographer that he is, but is more enigmatic with details on the man behind the legend.  “Ailey” premieres nationwide August 6th.

AILEY documentary small poster

Directed by Jamila Wignot, the film starts as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is getting ready to celebrate their 60th anniversary.  From there it alternates between the past and modern day, chronicling his childhood in Texas, the impact on his life when he first saw African American dancer Katherine Dunham perform on stage in Los Angeles, to working as a dancer and then with dancers as he established the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Told through his own words from archival footage, and interviews with those that knew and worked with him, there is no doubt that he was an inspirational and influential figure.   He was a visionary who created something that not only spoke to people but through the power of representation both as a dancer himself, the pieces he choreographed, and the company he founded. Yet, even within those most intimate of acquaintances the picture of the man himself, remains out of focus.  

“I’m searching for truth in movement,” Ailey says in the documentary. The truths that he gave life to on stage include experiences from the southern Black Churches from his childhood, the processing grief for the passing of a dear friend, and even the history of systemic racism.  His piece “Revelations” is a stunning work recounting the Black Church experience from his childhood and is not to be missed.

Ailey was an intensely private individual, even the dancers interviewed noted that he was warm and caring, but only let anyone get so close. Through his dance he was able to give voice to his feelings, the life experiences, and even the admiration he had for working Black women like his mother who raised him. The film acknowledges his personal life, and there is a brief mention of personal mental health issues he may have battled, but nothing substantial. 

Ultimately, “Ailey” is a powerful testament to the man who dared to become the thing he dreamed about; a dancer, a choreographer, and a champion for others who dreamed of the same.  Maybe it is fitting that the film leaves part of his life out of the spotlight, and let his talent and his craft take center stage. After all, that is how he lived his life and feels fitting for the film as well.

“Ailey” is playing nationwide starting August 6th at theatres near you.

A personal note on this documentary, for many years I had the privilege to work with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre tour and help them travel and bring performances around the world.  The dance company is truly stunning and I highly recommend that if they come to your area that you  see and support their and Ailey’s art.  Currently they are not touring but for a limited time you can experience their dance through their Youtube channel.

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