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'Ailey' Doc Shows How Alvin Ailey Changed The Landscape Of Dance For Dancers Of Color


One of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, Alvin Ailey altered the landscape of dance, both for dancers of color and for audiences. Critic Bob Mondello says a new documentary called, simply, "Ailey" makes the case that he was a man possessed by his art.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Even if you've never seen Alvin Ailey's work in a theater, you likely know bits of it - Black dancers in earth tones at the beginning of his masterpiece "Revelations"; bodies bent, arms arched and outstretched like gull wings, pulsing then pulling in so fingers can sprout skyward, seedlings reaching for the sun; and at the end of the piece, dancers in bright yellow exultant under that same sun that now fills the sky. All of that is given context in Jamila Wignot's documentary by Ailey's recollections of his early years in the Depression-era South and photos of a child glued to his mother's hip on a dusty road.


ALVIN AILEY: My blood memories - the memories of my parents, uncles and aunts, blues and the gospel songs that I knew from Texas.

MONDELLO: An unlikely start for a figure of such importance to dance, he didn't even discover theater until his mother moved them to Los Angeles when he was 12. And the companies he saw then were all white.


AILEY: And then one day, I saw Katherine Dunham.

I couldn't believe that she - Black people on a legitimate stage (ph). What she was doing was Afro-Caribbean. It was beauty (ph). It was spiritual. And it touched something Texas in me.

MONDELLO: Something he took with him to New York when he was 24, strapping, handsome and enough of a rebel to want to dance his own way with his own company. Director Wignot mostly zips past the Ailey troupe's early years to concentrate on a thread that interests her. Sixties audiences were drawn to idealized portraits of Black life - the beauty and affirmation of "Revelations," say. But Ailey also tried to reflect Black reality - the FBI assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969.


AILEY: There was a photograph in the newspaper of this young Black man in this tiny room, like a rat, with all these police holes around him.

MONDELLO: How could that not affect his choreography?


AILEY: Now, as if you're being followed by a search light. Yes. As if you're being chased by the police.

MONDELLO: Dance as protest.


AILEY: Stop the - stop the music, would you? Yeah. Now, let's try the - I want to feel like you're in jail, like you're behind bars. And I want to feel all the anger in the cutting. I want to feel like you're being pressed down when you take the arabesque.

MONDELLO: This is not, let's note, what Ailey is mostly famous for. And the film's last half hour concentrates on the man as less assertive about other aspects of himself. He hid his homosexuality and his diagnosis with AIDS for reasons choreographer Bill T. Jones ascribes to the success of the work for which his company was so celebrated.


BILL T JONES: Men are men on the Ailey stage. And women are women on the Ailey stage. And they are exemplary. And they are the survivors of racism and slavery. And they are beautiful. And they are strong. And they will live forever and leap higher and higher. Are you telling me that they have sex that could kill them? You telling me - Ailey himself? Oh, that's too much. That's too much. We have to edit that out of the history. And he participated in the editing of it.

MONDELLO: A mixed portrait, then - assertive and not, bold of vision and fearful of discovery - bound together by footage of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearsing a tribute for the 60th anniversary of its founding, meaning the company has spent more years shaping the way the world sees dance than did Ailey himself. He died at 58.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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