Carefully blending archive footage with contemporary dance rehearsals interspersed with his own words, interviews with people who worked and knew him, Jamila Wignot has crafted moving powerful film about choreographer Alvin Ailey.

Ailey was one of the most important artists of the 20th century with his innovative challenging routines that gained him worldwide fame and exposure. At the same time challenging society being a black choreographer with a multi-racial troupe and refusing to compromise his vision in fact pushing is forward.

A rural Texas native Ailey had a childhood in the 1930’s that was impoverished with him out with his mother in the cotton fields. Relief from this was his faith, blues and gospel music, to his early days dancing in bars, then falling in love with ballet in Los Angeles. He was impressive but it wasn’t until he moved to New York that he was truly inspired.

Hard practice and tuition honed his craft building his reputation and influence as he developed his routines founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater touring the US and then the world. All the time creating new routines reflecting his personal and political visions.

Inevitably the pressures began to tell on his health, his work ethic seemingly not letting him slow down and driving himself ever harder. This coupled with his natural shyness may have led to poor decisions in his personal life, and heartbreak. A gay man in the early eighties with HIV rife and all the prejudice at the time meant he withdrew somewhat though he was by all accounts never that comfortable with the spotlight.

This shyness means that while there are terrific snippets of him speaking the film mainly relies on the contributions of his friends, troupe dancers and associates. But when Ailey is speaking the film achieves another level of authority. An articulate and eloquent speaker there’s a stream of consciousness when his words are paired with the archive which is sublime in its texture and resonance.

The archive routines even though some are in poor condition are sublime; the skill, grace and power of the dance undiminished. This creates a problem when Wignot switches to the present day and the current Ailey dance troupe rehearsing an Ailey inspired routine. This is more to do with disrupting the natural flow of the film than anything else though the rehearsals naturally appear bitty and unrefined when placed against the finished archive material.

However for all the film archive and many contributions it still feels as if there’s a hole here and that we don’t really know who Alvin Ailey was. As frustrating as that may be for some, it is in line with the man described in the film and may be fitting that he remains an enigma.

Ailey director Q&A hosted by Bonnie Greer screens in cinemas on 4th January, book now: www.aileyfilm.co.uk

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