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  Ailey His Interpretation
Year: 2021
Director: Jamila Wignot
Stars: Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Bill T. Jones, Samuel Lee Roberts, George Faison, Don Martin, Carmen de la Lavallade
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Alvin Ailey was a dancer who revolutionised the interpretive form by using it to give a voice to the black American experience as he had lived through himself. But the man was intensely private and would mainly talk about his work in interviews, so when he died in 1989 many accepted the diagnosis that he had succumbed to a blood disease. Yet the reality was that Ailey was gay, and it was AIDS that had ended his life as it did to many thousands of gay men in the nineteen-eighties. Now this is widely known, does it overshadow his essential efforts in the world of dance? Not if his adherents have anything to do with it as they prepare a new show in tribute named Lazarus, every performer in it aware of its importance...

Here was a deceptively conventional, biographical documentary about a highly unconventional man, which at too many points raised more questions than it answered since its subject was no longer around to respond. Nevertheless, director Jamila Wignot had found a collection of private interviews he gave to friends which filled in a few of the gaps in his psyche, ranging from his homosexuality to his race to his mental health issues, all of which were sadly linked in his tortured mind. Yet if he had not been in possession of such inner turmoil, the film posits, he would not have been the creative force that he turned out to be. However, there remained matters not explored that it would have been fascinating to gain his perspective on that was just not possible now.

This more or less starts with his early childhood in Texas, where he was dirt poor and lived with his beloved mother, his father being absent, then moves to Los Angeles where he demonstrates his athleticism in school, but also wishes to apply that to dance, not sport, something he was reluctant to admit to almost everyone. You can perceive that turmoil from this account of his beginnings, but also how inspired he was by seeing other black dancers on the stage, and the very twenty-first century need to be represented proves to have been around in the previous century, and probably before that too. This led Ailey to create his own shows based around that representation, but there are rumblings that not everyone was fully supportive of them in his own community, never mind the racists his company had to contend with.

Why? In an avenue frustratingly unexplored, we understand it is because, apparently, Ailey's shows were too good: the white establishment would think, well, we've done that now, given the black folks their space to have their say, we'll just continue as before. Such is the curse of any minority art or entertainment that breaks through into mainstream success (and the Ailey troupe danced for millions of people), the novelty wears off and it seems the problems they addressed return until the next generation tries and fails to eradicate them. The illusion of progress, as they say, and that applied to Ailey's gender as much as his race, but then again, we see interviewee after interviewee who have obviously had equally fascinating lives, and though they are talking about their friend and mentor (not necessarily the same thing) we can tell they will have a wealth of stories of their own. One hoped, whatever your thoughts on modern dance, seeing the many clips of Ailey's choreography would allow the viewer to appreciate why he was a genius, and that's not always easy with this medium, but more than that, appreciate his troubled soul and mourn for him, if only a little - it was undeniably moving by the close.

[AILEY - released in cinemas and on demand 7th January 2022.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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