Reel Dad: 'Ailey' brings dance to its feet at Sundance

"Ailey" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Ailey" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival / Contributed photo

For generations of people searching to be heard, and understood, choreographer Alvin Ailey offered a means of expression through dance. From his first performances as a dancer on Broadway in 1954 to his creation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 to the triumphant introduction of his ballet “Revelations” in 1960, this masterful creator redefined story telling with every movement.

It seems inevitable after all the years, and the accolades, that Ailey’s life and death in 1989 would eventually become a movie documentary. But this man’s grip on a nation’s need to express doesn’t naturally fit into the traditions of narration, historical stills and video clips that define many nonfiction films. What a joy to share that Jamila Wignot’s memorable “Ailey” both celebrates the mystery of a man as well as captures the magic of his moves.

What separates this from many well-intentioned documentaries is the presence of Ailey himself as well as the scope of recorded material of his works in performance. Thank goodness for television specials of yesteryear. As a result, we hear the man describe the hurt in his life immediately followed by dance sequences that give movement to emotional pain; at once we listen to his detailed descriptions of a troubled childhood in Texas then immediately see dancers expressing the impact of this turbulence; we absorb his ambiguity about the direction his life should take after which we see him confront these questions in performances filled with dynamic athleticism and groundbreaking authenticity. Before Ailey, dance served to entertain; with Ailey, movement became an essential channel for the human heart.

This balance makes “Ailey” more than a review of a choreographer’s works. While we see how his career progresses through the decades, we absorb the meaning behind each approach to movement. What makes this an essential documentary is its full portrait of a man with the courage to tell his story on stage as well as survive its chapters when curtains fall. The uncertainty that defines Ailey’s life gives his dance purpose; the hopelessness he personally feels defines the scope of what his dance can express. Adding to our understanding of Ailey are present-day comments from some in his orbit, especially the observations from collaborator Judith Jamison. And because Ailey, himself, narrates this look at his life, with audio and video excerpts, we embrace the moods, disappointments and despair that became necessary steps in his journey.

Fortunately, Ailey’s work thrives around the world, touching new generations of audiences seeking to learn more. As the film opens and closes with moments from his Kennedy Center Honors accolade in 1988, an honor introduced by the late Cicely Tyson, we sense the irony of a man so open about his life who felt forced to be closed about his illness and death. How much he could have used his command of dance to help us understand and embrace the tragedy of AIDS. The legacy he leaves in his words and work makes us want to promise we will never let our world be so negligent again.

“Ailey” runs 88 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to festival.sundance.org .

Summary: Ailey

Content: High. This beautifully-directed documentary of a legendary choreographer's life and work tells a compelling story of the man and the movement.

Entertainment: High. Director Jamila Wignot reaches beyond standard documentary to tell a compelling story of how dance can enable many to be heard.

Message: High. Through thrilling dance sequences, Wignot celebrates the heart of the man and the humanity of his message.

Relevance: High. Anyone who loves dance, and is curious about the impact of art, will find this a moving tribute.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Even if dance is "not your thing", the film will give you a lot to talk about.