Two new docs offer deep dive on African-American dance icons

Movie review: Ailey and Can You Bring It – Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones redefined modern dance for their generation, but while Ailey’s company became the de facto representative of the African-American experience on the legitimate stage, Bill T. Jones lingered in the shadows long enough to truly know himself, and the emotional purpose behind each move.

 

Ailey

3.5/5

Directed by: Jamila Wignot

Starring: Rennie Harris, Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Judith Jamison, George Faison

Running time: 1 hr 22 mins

Now playing in select theatres and VOD

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D Man in the Waters

4/5

Directed by: Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc

Starring: Bill T. Jones

Running time: Bill T. Jones, Arthur Aviles, Betsy McCracken, Jenna Riegel

Now playing in select theatres and VOD

 

“Jesus went on to say, ‘To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” – Luke 7:31-32

 

By Katherine Monk

Dance marks generations and degrees of authenticity, which is why “you have to be possessed” to do it, according to Alvin Ailey in the opening frames of Jamila Wignot’s new documentary that bears his name. It’s a fitting start to a study in the unique blend of mental and physical obsession that creates a choreographer, but it’s an even bigger proof of the man’s self-awareness about what it takes to be a dancer — especially a black dancer during the latter half of the 20th century.

Long recognized as the spiritual father of modern dance and an African-American legend credited with making the black experience universal, Alvin Ailey’s voyage from small town Texas to the Great White Way is the stuff American dreams are made of. Yet, as Wignot’s film unfurls, we can see the shadow side of star-spangled aspirations — and sense the creeping darkness of doubt that’s always waiting in the wings.

Born in 1931 in a Jim Crow South, Ailey tells us he never knew his father. He grew up under the watchful eye of his mother, who didn’t try to suppress her son’s differences and happily exposed him to new experiences, whether it was moving to Los Angeles or taking him to see the travelling Ballet Russe as a 14-year-old. The life-changing event was seeing Katherine Dunham, the “Queen Mother of Black Dance” on the “legitimate stage.” Ailey had never seen a black performer be so real, so talented and so embraced by the masses. It transported him to “another realm,” and from that point on, he set out to recreate the world of dance to reflect a very different reality — the one he experienced as a black man.

Incorporating Afro-Caribbean moves and rhythm into traditional forms, Ailey created a new vocabulary of movement. As precise as classical ballet, but infused with raw emotions, Ailey gave dance a new look and feel. But not everyone was ready for the revolution. It took a government-sponsored tour of South Asia lay the foundation. Ailey recounts the story of the first show in Australia, where only 25 people attended the first show. “But those 25 people went absolutely nuts. And the next night… it was packed.”

Indeed, from that point on, Ailey packed every house, giving birth to his company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which continues to this very day — and is where director Wignot spends much of her time, generating most of the contemporary footage in what is otherwise a largely archival exercise.

One of the central interviewees is choreographer Rennie Harris — a man who grew up in Ailey’s aura, but is now being tasked with creating a dance in his honour. He speaks as we watch his dancers rehearse movements that are destined to send shivers down the spine: balletic interpretations of lynchings, and all variety of ugly suffering made eerily beautiful.
“The dancer is a physical historian,” says Harris, explaining how the body stores the collective memory of a people. “Memory is the anchor.”

“The dancer is a physical historian… Memory is the anchor.”

Ailey’s celebration of these core movements that fuse the suffering of slave labor and tribal dance were introduced to the broader public through a piece called Revelations. Unveiled in 1960, Revelations is considered one of the most important dance pieces of the century and the keystone of Ailey’s creative legacy. “I had never seen it before… People were taking off their shoes and banging them against the wall because they wanted more,” says one of Ailey’s original dancers of the Revelations éclat in Stuttgart. But as the documentary affirms, success can be a albatross to an original spirit.

Ailey felt he had to outdo himself at every turn, and more cumbersome still, remain a vital vessel of African-American identity. For a gay man who was still somewhat closeted, and a dancer who still revered classical balletic form, the yoke of expectation weighed on him. “The world of the creator is a lonely place,” says one of his peers. “No one can help you.”
The resulting portrait is laced with pathos, and though it sounds awful, being able to communicate creative suffering in a palpable way is a measure of success when it comes to documenting the artistic experience — especially so if the creator comes from a marginalized and oppressed community.

For Ailey, articulating the soul of the African-American identity was a core obsession — but it was also something of a creative curse because everything he did was automatically thrown under a particular banner. He was always going to be seen as “an African-American artist,” and measured as much by the tint of his skin as his balletic leaps.

For this reason, the voice of fellow black choreographer and lesser-known icon of modern dance, Bill T. Jones, is such a key source of emotional information. Jones is the subject of Can You Bring It – Bill T. Jones and D Man in the Waters, another dance documentary currently making the art-house rounds.

Jones’s company was largely eclipsed by Ailey’s — which became the de facto representative of black dance culture for decades — but lingering in the shadows allowed Jones greater freedom to explore, and finally, know himself.

Jones has a facility with words that eluded Ailey, which inevitably makes Can You Bring It a little richer when it comes to personal insights and cultural contexts, but taken together, the two films form a panoramic picture of a particular moment in time.

More importantly, they show us what pieces of personal history are deemed valuable enough to represent on screen. For instance, Jones explains how Ailey’s sexuality was downplayed and his death due to AIDS glossed over and largely edited from the obituaries of the day.

Jones explains how Ailey’s sexuality was downplayed and his death due to AIDS glossed over and largely edited from the obituaries of the day.

In other words, though Ailey sought to represent truth through movement — he couldn’t embrace the truth of his own identity. His whole oeuvre hung over a question mark, a trap door that was always threatening to give way beneath him. Director Jamila Wignot captures a lot of this self-doubt through interviews with the company members and peers, but you can feel it wriggling around the edges of every frame.

Ailey was torn between a desire for popular acceptance and a need to erupt in rage. It’s why he often scored his most challenging pieces about social injustice with pop songs of the era. “It’s easier for the audience if they’re hearing House of the Rising Sun at the same time,” he’d say.

In contrast, Bill T. Jones never pandered to his audience, or tried to make the work easier to digest. If anything, communicating suffering was the whole point — and the bedrock of his most significant piece: D-Man in the Waters.

Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters from Can You Bring It.

Created in the wake of the AIDS crisis in 1989, D-Man in the Waters was Jones’s response to the death of his partner and true love, Arnie Zane. A bi-racial gay couple who found each other in the 1970s, Jones and Zane pushed the envelope of modern dance at a moment in time when people were ready for something entirely different. They delivered dance that featured different body types — heavy people, round people — but also plenty of athleticism.

Jones’s work is considered extremely challenging from a physical perspective, but as we watch a group of college students attempt to stage their own version of D-Man in the Waters a generation after its creation, it’s not just the moves that demand a new level of engagement, but the idea of the dance itself.

The dance came out of rage, powerlessness and a profound new appreciation for the fragility of the human body. It came out of a humanitarian crisis — but as a group of contemporary dance students attempt a new production of D-Man, it’s clear to Jones there’s something missing in their mindset. They don’t know anything about AIDS, and their concept of suffering almost comes across as petty.

They tell us they know next to nothing about the scourge that claimed hundreds of thousands of young men and women in their prime — leaving Jones a little discouraged, worried they may not grasp the pathos sitting at the heart of the work. They talk about gun violence, and their social media feeds as problems, but the weight of guilt and shame that came with AIDS as a sickness eludes them entirely.

Heaviness is part of dance, because gravity holds us down every second. Wignot’s Ailey finds the weight and wears it, but we never get the sensation of dancing with it — of truly merging with the darkness and dancing it into the light.

But Bring It does. It understands and articulates the suffering. It absorbs and internalizes the human urges and desires, as well as the limits and cage of physicality. So even when the dancers may not be there completely, we, as viewers are, because the movie pivots around the ephemeral nature of the human endeavour: Either you surrender to the darkness, or you get to the place where you have nothing left to fear and “Bring It.”

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, August 13, 2021

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Review: Ailey, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

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Summary

3.5/5, 4/5Score

Ailey- Long recognized as the spiritual father of modern dance and an African-American legend credited with making the black experience universal, Alvin Ailey’s voyage from small town Texas to the Great White Way is the stuff American dreams are made of. Yet, as Jamila Wignot’s film unfurls, we can see the shadow side of star-spangled aspirations — and sense the creeping darkness of doubt that’s always waiting in the wings. By contrast, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters shows us Ailey's peer as a tireless experimenter who was more obsessed with truth in movement than fame or success. Taken together, both films form a picture of the African-American experience from a unique perspective -- not just as gay black men, but as two people who carved out a place of their own in a world of white privilege. -- Katherine Monk

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