Sundance 2021 Review: Ailey

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde


Editor’s Note: NEON has made it’s second acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival with Jamila Wignot’s Ailey. Described as the moving and intimate portrait of dance legend Alvin Ailey. The film debuted on Saturday to both critical and audience acclaim, being celebrated for its sensorial, rich story that traces the full contours of this extraordinary artist’s life and his connection to the present dance company that bears his name.

SYNOPSIS: Alvin Ailey is one of the most important choreographers in the history of modern dance. In 1958, at just 27 years old, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s vision was of Black bodies unshackled and overflowing with feeling: Confidence… sorrow… joy… pride… beauty… possibility.

Ailey is a sensorial, archival-rich story that traces the full contours of this extraordinary artist’s biography and connects his past to our present with an intimate glimpse into the Ailey studios today, where we follow innovative hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as he conceives a new dance inspired by Ailey’s life.

Using never-before-heard audio interviews recorded in the last year of his life, we experience Ailey’s astonishing journey in his words, starting with the textures of his childhood in Jim Crow Texas. Raised by a single mother who struggled to provide, Ailey knew hardship, but his life was rich with culture and love. He brings us into his world of blues and gospel, juke joints and church. And he tells us about the blush of young love and the awakening of his gay identity.

Ailey’s story is one of sacrifice. Possessed by his ambitions, he dedicated himself to his company. He endured racism and homophobia; addiction and mental illness; and the burden of being an iconic African American artist. In 1989, he tragically succumbed to the AIDS epidemic.

Thirty years later, Ailey’s dream lives on. Where other modern dance companies were built to showcase their founders, Ailey saw his own as bigger than himself. Throughout his rich journey, our film interweaves Rennie Harris’ present-day rehearsal process to show the enduring power of Ailey’s vision. In Harris’ creative process, Ailey comes alive for a whole new generation: His faith in the transformative power of dance, his grand embrace, his expression of complete freedom.

Review: A beautiful film by Jamila Wignot who showcases Black joy through the life and legacy of legendary choreographer Alvin Aliey. Through archival footage, testimony from friends and colleagues as well as his own commentary we get to learn more about Alvin Ailey the man. Fundamentally Aliey’s art was about the Black experience and he was never afraid to say so. 

The documentary showcased how his childhood, in Texas, influenced by blues and gospel was part of his genius. Ailey often said that “blood memories” were the anchor for his dance. These “blood memories” were part of his history and the history of his parents and his parents parents and so forth. This is just a fraction of what Ailey was able to capture in his choreographies. Ailey was also a trailblazer. Who saw a future in dance when he was 12 and saw Katherine Dunham dance in LA. It was the first time he saw a Black dancer on stage and that touched something in him and he just knew his future. 

Ailey’s story was not without struggle and he kept a part of it hidden. He often talked about the physical, emotional, financial, and personal sacrifices dancers have to make in the process. But hid his AIDS related illness. Ailey struggled with the idea of being known as a Black choreographer. Ailey simply wanted to be a choreographer and showcase all the aspects of his genius and not just what the industry expected of him. He described his creative process as bringing movement into an empty space. Ailey certainly accomplished this and spoke truth to power through movement. 

What he did was universal and reverberated across the United States and outside of these borders. It was pure magic! Ailey’s choreography opened the world up to who he really was showcasing Blackness and Black joy. His goal was to search for truth in movement and this documentary showcased that he achieved his truth. 

Director Jamila Wignot’s Statement:

Nothing prepares you for the experience of Ailey—the emotional, spiritual, aural, and visual overwhelm the senses. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to stories about artists like Alvin Ailey—innovators who tenaciously follow their own voice and in doing redefined their chosen forms. Ailey’s dances—celebrations of African American beauty and history—did more than move bodies; they opened minds. His dances were revolutionary social statements that staked a claim as powerful in his own time as in ours: Black life is central to the American story and deserves a central place in American art and on the world stage. A working-class, gay, Black man, he rose to prominence in a society that made every effort to exclude him. He transformed the world of dance and made space for those of us on the margins—space for black artists like Rennie Harris and me.

I am inspired by subjective documentary portraits like Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, and by the poetic cinematic approaches of films such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. My aim was to blend these influences into a sensorial, poetic documentary portrait.


Ailey is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

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