- Movie Rating -

Ailey (2021)

| August 28, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

I’ll admit, I am always at a distance when it comes to ballet.  I know that I am suppose to pull my own interpretation into the routine to unlock the message that the dancer is trying to portray, but it is always lost on me.  I can no more find meaning in a dance routine then I can the images in a Rorschach test.  It’s pretty, but I don’t see the substance.

Seeing Alvin Ailey’s routines for, admittedly, the first time during the documentary Ailey, I can see the meaning for the very first time.  His work was unique to the African-American experience and there are moments in this film when the dance routines are superimposed on top of pictures of black men and women in the old south before the Civil Rights movement, marching, posing, dancing, being “in their place.”  At one point, several actors are asked to stand on their toes with their heads down and their shoulders hunched.  It is an odd arrangement until it dawned on me that these men were impersonating a lynching.

These images, these routines were often high energy, full of purpose and meaning.  He had something to say through dance, but rarely in person.  Ailey was an extremely private person, a gay black man who existed in a world in which a black man was relegated to second-class status and a gay man was food for a mental institution.  In spite of this, his work became world-renowned and whose who were part of his company remember the night that ended with 30 curtain calls after a performance in Moscow.

This film is largely a document of his work, much of which was created while he was still in his 20s.  We are privy to archival footage and new interviews with people who passed through his Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  They remember how new it all was, how much of a master of dance Ailey was and how innovative his work was to an audience use to a European style of dance.

What I love about the film is the footage of the dance routines which use a lot of head-snaps and broad gestures.  What is a little more difficult is getting to the man himself.  He rarely granted interviews, didn’t talk much about himself and remained fiercely private.  That leaves us to the interviews and second-hand accounts that, after a while, get a little repetitive.  It’s not really the filmmaker’s fault.  They apparently didn’t have a lot of insights from which to work.  Plus, the movie’s interviewees are mostly people who were part of the company in the 60s and 70s.  The company has survived for 6 decades, so what are the thoughts of the people in the company today?  What do they take from Ailey’s work?  Why is it special to them?

I walk away from Ailey with a much better appreciation of the form and, particularly his own work, but I can’t help feeling that there is another story here to tell, much more interviews that needed to be conducted.  This is one of the rare films that makes me interested in ballet.  I was hoping for something more.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary