By Mark Brown
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2787

Ailey—a powerful portrait of a black dance pioneer

This new documentary about the life and work of the great choreographer Alvin Ailey is a revelation, writes Mark Brown
Issue 2787
Dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey strikes a dramatic, athletic pose

Alvin Ailey carved a space for black dance in a white dominated industry (Picture: Norman Maxon, New York Public Library)

The 20th century witnessed a revolution in the dance traditions of North America and Europe. No understanding of the emergence of the new dance forms could be complete without taking into account the immense contribution of the great black artist Alvin Ailey.

The founder, in 1958, of the path-breaking Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the subject of Jamila Wignot’s superb new feature documentary, titled simply Ailey.

The film combines archive footage with a series of interviews with those who worked with Ailey or were inspired by him.

Interviewees include Judith Jamison, an outstanding dancer with Ailey’s company and the choreographer’s muse. There’s also the great African-American dancer and choreographer Bill T Jones, who took considerable inspiration from Ailey’s work.

The documentary gives a strong sense of the conditions of life for Ailey growing up as a child in the Texas countryside in the 1930s and 40s.

He was raised by his mother—a lone parent who moved from place to place in order to scrape together a living—in a racist, segregated society.

This experience made an indelible impression on Ailey, one that he would express in his most acclaimed work of choreography, Revelations.

Created in 1960, when the choreographer was just 29 years old, the piece contained many “revelations”.

It revealed the possibility that a black dance company could take its place in the white-dominated world of professional dance.

Not only that, it revealed that it could do so with a piece that celebrated African-American dance and music—from gospel to jazz. Even more importantly, it offered a powerful, highly emotive revelation of the historical and ongoing experience of racial oppression in the southern US.

Wignot is extremely skilful in weaving together the socio‑political and the personal.

The film deals with the US state’s cynical efforts to use Ailey’s company to project a global image of America as an egalitarian, multiracial society. But it also touches movingly upon the personal tragedies and loneliness that afflicted Ailey.

He grew up in a time when homosexuality was a crime in all 50 American states. Like many people of his generation, he struggled with being gay.

Ultimately, this documentary is a brilliant tribute to a fantastically accomplished and incredibly important artist.

Indeed, as the film shows beautifully, Ailey’s greatest legacy is the continuation of the vibrant dance company that carries his name.

Ailey is in cinemas and on demand now. Go to

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