In Cinemas

Ailey review – earnest doc celebrates one of the great modern dancers

Targeted expressly at avid fans of interpretive dance, Jamila Wignot's film is often moving but sometimes a little alienating

For all that the DNA it shares with cinema – the joys of sound and movement that can’t be adequately captured by words – interpretive dance has often faced being a punchline in movies, an art form that defies the literal in favour of pure earnest emotion and is thus subject to easy mockery. Jamila Wignot’s new documentary Ailey serves as a touching corrective to those attitudes, celebrating the revolutionary power of one of the masters of the form – Black dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey.

Wignot shifts back and forth through time to tell Ailey’s life story, a story cut tragically short by AIDS in 1989. We move between his harsh childhood in ‘30s Texas to becoming an icon of the New York arts scene, via his career-defining 1960 masterpiece Revelations, tackling the trauma of slavery and power of the church in Black American life. It’s an incredibly impressive career, made more moving by the talking head interviews with Ailey’s former collaborators who simply can’t disguise their overwhelming joy to have known him and sorrow to have lost him.

It’s not hagiography, though, with some of his younger devotees expressing their frustration that he never came out as openly gay, even during the AIDS crisis, and the picture painted is one of a complicated, deeply lonely man, his work never entirely filling the void within him, no matter how brilliant it was.

Obviously, Ailey is targeted pretty specifically at those with a love for and working knowledge of modern dance and there are stretches that simply won’t connect with you if you’re not versed in this world. At its best, though, it offers insight for outsiders into the opportunities for self-expression that dance affords, all while introducing you to one of the truly great practitioners of the form.

Ailey is now showing in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

Where to watch

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