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Review: Admiring documentary ‘Ailey’ skims the surface of bold and gifted choreographer

A young man with three dancers in the background from the documentary "Ailey."
Choreographer Alvin Ailey from the documentary “Ailey.”
(Neon)

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From what Alvin Ailey called his “blood memories,” modern dance and Black dance were transformed in America. A child born into poverty and segregation in Texas who created some of the most memorably dynamic and beautiful choreography of the 20th century, Ailey and the totality of his invention, turmoil and career are as fitting a subject for a deep-dive cultural documentary as could exist. Which is one of the reasons Jamila Wignot’s admiring portrait “Ailey,” as loving as it is, can seem glancing rather than immersive, like a performance that, while enjoyed, is still experienced from a semi-obstructed view.

Part of the reason any Ailey-focused documentary would struggle is its subject, an elusive figure whose personality was in the fluid, expressive and rooted art he danced and/or created for his American Dance Theater company. Ailey was searching for “truth in movement,” as we see him tell the camera in an old clip. His person, on the other hand — the man behind the shy, affectionate and occasionally volatile exterior — was saved for a guarded existence outside the studio.

Wignot handles this legacy with a quasi-poetic approach. She mixes archival passages; original testimony from his dancers such as Judith Jamison and George Faison; vintage excerpts from his best-known pieces; and modern scenes inside the present-day Ailey troupe’s rehearsals for “Lazurus,” choreographer Rennie Harris’ 2018 work commemorating the 60th anniversary of the company.

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Ailey himself, from a late-in-life audio recording, narrates his Deep South childhood as Wignot strings together indiscriminate archival footage for a dreamlike, swimming-through-time effect. He describes a time of adversity with a hard-working mother he stayed close to his whole life and witnessing a Black rural life of toil, churchgoing and honky-tonk revelry that would infuse early successes like “Blues Suite” (1958) with the grit and grace of, as he puts it, Black people’s ability to “get through.”

The details of his moves — first to Los Angeles, then to New York — are vague. What sinks in, however, is the story of a natural student-athlete who initially worried what an interest in theater and dance would mark him as, but who couldn’t deny the impact of seeing Black dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, and studying under modern dance teacher Lester Horton. Ailey was driven to turn his experience, and by extension that of Black people, into thrillingly emotional, strong and evocative dance. His spirituals-inspired 1960 masterpiece “Revelations” would ignite audiences around the world, while his gifted, versatile, racially diverse company sent a necessary message of breadth, inclusion and protest in the arts that continues to define his name. His work embodied the notion that art born of the specific can hold universal appeal. Jamison on Ailey’s 1971 ode to his mother, “Cry,” is especially moving.

But as Ailey’s stature rises in Wignot’s telling, the thicket of his personal life as a private, pleasure-seeking gay man at an isolating, doubting remove from the relentless, outspoken creator and sought-after public figure is only skimmed. At a certain point, the “Lazurus” scenes — enlivening as they are — feel as if they’re taking the place of further interrogation into a genius’ troubles. It’s one reason that after so many justifiably appreciative words from y interviewees and surface details from Ailey Bill T. Jones’ trenchant analysis about Ailey’s inner turmoil — and why his acclaim and popularity wasn’t enough, for himself or for an unjust world — carry a welcome punch.

It’s also worth remembering that someone as complex as Alvin Ailey isn’t going to be captured in any one film. “Ailey” is, therefore, best absorbed as an elegant, impressionistic primer, a chance to bask in his mastery of movement and dance, as framed by those near enough to him to know what it took out of him to gift it to the world.

'Ailey'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 6, The Landmark, West L.A.; Laemmle Glendale; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Newhall, Santa Clarita; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena


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