Too often, Alvin Ailey’s idea is reduced to a single dance: “Revelations.” His 1960 exploration of the Black experience remains a masterpiece, but it also overshadows the man who created it. How can an artist move on after such a quick success? Who was Alvin Ailey?
In “Ellie,” director Jamila Vignot combined images, video, and — most important — voice-over from Ellie to create a portrait that feels as poetic and as subtly as the choreography. Black and white footage of crowds entering churches, children playing, dance parties and the dusty landscape of Texas (his birthplace) create an atmosphere. Like Ellie’s Dances, the documentary leaves you floating in sensation.
Ellie’s story told together Creation of “Lazarus” A new dance form by contemporary choreographer Renée Harris, whose tribute to Ellie proposes an intriguing juxtaposition of past and present. In his quest to reveal the man behind the legacy, Harris lands on the topic of resurrection. Ellie died in 1989, but her spirit lives on in her dancers.
But his early days were not easy. Born in 1931, Ellie never knew her father and remembers “clinging to my mom’s hip. Sloshing through terrain. Branches hitting baby’s body. Moving from place to place. Place to be My mother is working in the fields. I used to pick cotton.
He was only 4 years old. Ellie described how her dances were filled with “dark deep things, beautiful things inside of me that I was always trying to bring out.”
All the while, Ellie, who was gay, remained extremely private. Here, we understand his anguish, especially after the sudden death of his friend, choreographer and dancer Joyce Trisler. In his honor, he choreographed “Memoria” (1979), the dance of loneliness and celebration. “I couldn’t cry until I saw this piece,” he says.
Ellie’s mental health was critical towards the end of her life; Vignot shows the crowd gathering on the sidewalks, but instead of walking them as usual, she reverses their steps. He was suffering from AIDS. Before his death, he gave his company to Judith Jamison, who sums up his magnetic, enduring presence: “Alvin breathed and never breathed.”
Again, this is the idea of resurrection. “We’re holding his breath out,” she continues. “So we’re living on what we’re swimming on.”
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. in Theaters.