Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"He was known as an enigmatic type when alive and the film retains this air of mystery, which might prove frustrating for some hoping for a deeper dig." | Photo: Jack Mitchell

Archive footage and interviews with African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey - who died from the complications of AIDS in 1989 - enter a dance and a dialogue with a new work, Lazarus, in Jamila Wignot's documentary. The modern piece, performed by the dance company Ailey founded and choreographed by Rennie Harris in tribute to the dance pioneer, celebrates both his personal achievements and his legacy.

Wignot takes a chronological approach to Ailey's life, beginning with his dirt poor childhood in Texas before moving on to his move to LA as a child, and how he came to train with Lester Horton, alongside his sexual and dance awakening. The film touches on how important it is to see yourself and your history represented - and how shockingly narrow representation has been for too long - as Ailey recalls the revelatory feeling he got when he saw African-American dancer Katherine Dunham perform for the first time. More generally, the picture painted is of a young man who was bringing something to audiences that they had never seen before but who was doing that with a strong sense of those who had gone before - imbuing his work with influences from blues, jazz, southern and black experience to become, as Harris terms it a "physical historian". The racial and homophobic prejudice Ailey faced stands in contrast to the success he also enjoyed with the likes of Blues Suite and Revelations.

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This early section is edited together with grace and feeling by Cory Jordan Wayne and Annukka Lilja, which captures the spirit of the times in which Ailey was finding his feet but as the film progresses, it begins to leap over and pirouette around some aspects of his life in favour of others. He was known as an enigmatic type when alive and the film retains this air of mystery, which might prove frustrating for some hoping for a deeper dig.

Nevertheless, we get a sense of the spirit of Ailey, not least through the memories of some of those who knew him best, including fellow dancers Carmen de la Lavallade, Judith Jamieson and Don Martin - the latter of whom's death last year should act as a reminder about how important it is to record these sorts of histories before it's too late. There's a sense of Ailey's struggles with his mental health, but the film largely presents us with his spirit and energy through the performances of his dance, both by himself and others - a legacy of life, movement and a celebration of black experience that, through Lazarus, is seen to be continuing to gain momentum after his death.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2021
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Alvin Ailey was a visionary artist who found salvation through dance. Told in his own words and through the creation of a dance inspired by his life, this immersive portrait follows a man who, when confronted by a world that refused to embrace him, determined to build one that would.
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Director: Jamila Wignot

Year: 2021

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US

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