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Our Critic Says 'Ailey' Is An Exceptional Documentary


The new documentary Ailey is about the life and work of the dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. It blends interviews with Ailey and colleagues, along with footage of Ailey’s dances, rehearsals and the times in which he lived. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the format is not unusual, but what the filmmakers do with it is spectacular.

You can probably tell that I think Ailey is an exceptional documentary. I do, and I think the film is also a poem and tribute to an artist we must treasure.

Frankly, until I saw Jamila Wignot’s documentary Ailey, about the dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, I didn’t give much of a hoot about dance. It follows that I also knew nothing about dance, and still know little. But Ailey’s work just knocked my socks off. And so did the film itself.

Most of all, the film is a work of great beauty. The dance sequences are simply magnificent, but the images that accompany Ailey’s conversation and the interviews with dancers and choreographers make the talk thrilling. Archival footage of Ailey as a child, of rural Black people coming and going from church. Individual portraits of people from the world where Ailey grew up are haunting and gorgeous, and they do what Ailey did with dance — they make the lives of Black people solid and valuable. They make the Black experience fundamental to all human life.

Alvin Ailey was born in small-town Texas in 1931, and he died from complications of AIDS right in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in 1989. But in his 58 years, he built the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company and a body of dance works that, as they should, reach to what’s essential in all our lives.

Ailey doesn’t replicate moments from his experience. He does what great artists do — he transforms the actual into figures of art. It’s more than making things he remembers abstract. He distills experience. His famous dance “Revelation” comes from childhood memories, when he went to church with his mother, but the dancers onstage reach into something like ecstasy. Imitating ideas or feelings about the social world, no matter how accurate or observant don’t make art; they make lectures. Ailey’s dances brought into the world the fact and the particulars of Black American experience. You can’t forget or ignore that Fred Hampton was murdered, or that Black people were slaves in cotton fields.

But that’s only the start of his art. Those gestures from field work also evoke repetition and bondage in ways anyone can understand and feel. The movements in “Revelation” have the sense of liberating exaltation that you get from Gothic cathedrals. And like those cathedrals, Ailey’s choreography is also grounded and basic. I find it amazing how deft the dancers’ motions are. They’re clear and profound; there’s not a lot of doubt, and I see no tricky or self-serving self-consciousness. Ailey’s choreography radiates simultaneous pain and triumph over pain.

In another piece, male dancers stand on their toes with their heads hanging in the postures of men who’ve been lynched — we’ve all seen those dreadful photos. It’s dangerous to try to make horror beautiful. It risks making the event into cocktail party conversation. And these dance images do beautify, but in a way that claws at you with what is inescapable.

The film respects Ailey’s clarity and depth. Lots of films about artists make facile one-to-one correspondences between the artist’s life and work. The movie “Ailey” understands the transformation of biography into art.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.