Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Alvin Ailey is black, and he’s universal,” said the late Cicely Tyson of the celebrated choreographer and hero of American dance when he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988. Jamila Wignot’s (“Town Hall”) new documentary “Ailey” chronicles the life of its namesake with attention to his key works. Woven into the story of his life, the documentary shows the work of the contemporary company, performing modern dance infused with Ailey’s spirit.

An only child born to a single mother in Texas in 1931, Ailey drew on his experiences in youth to tell a story of what it means to be Black in America. Shari Frilot, the curator of Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program, introduced the film as a showcase of Black joy. This joy, interlaced with coexistent Black pain, is richly layered and powerfully present in the archival footage of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performances and interviews with Ailey. The film, and much of Ailey’s choreography, functions as a reverential ode to Black perseverance through music and movement.

Ailey found dance after moving to Los Angeles as a child, where in the Ballets Russe de Monte-Carlo he discovered a “new world.” As a Black man, his own relationship with dance was energized by Katherine Dunham, whose movement, Ailey said, “touched something Texas in me.” From his first encounters with the art, Ailey drew on memory, personal and collective, harnessing his own emotion to stir emotion in his viewer.

His 1960 work, “Revelations,” which became one of his most renowned works, is virtuosic physical poetry about the history of Black experience in America. Rennie Harris, a contemporary choreographer who has worked with the AAADT, called the dancer a “physical historian.” By this account, Ailey was a genius historiographer.

The film’s most moving and marvelous storytelling remembers this genius and the toll it took. Ailey’s colleagues and friends reflect on the dissonance between man and idea; how he was used as a poster boy for racial progress, and how the immensity of his artistic genius overwhelmed his personal enclosure. His lack of close relationships, compounded by the stress of spectacular success, eroded Ailey’s mental health as he poured more of himself into his work than he was able to give.

This powerful feeling and Ailey’s emotion are resurrected by the stories of his peers, the footage of his choreography, his interviews and mesmerizing found footage. Throughout the film, we are shown his surroundings: Texas in the 1930s, Los Angeles in the ’40s and New York in the ’70s and ’80s. 

When the company travels to Paris, we are transported to Paris. Editor Annukka Lilja did her own “choreography,” as Harris described it in the post-screening Q&A, beautifully bringing Ailey’s recorded voice into the visual present through montage. The effect is the telling of an untold story, through a novel and brilliantly artistic choreographic filmography.

Ailey died from complications of AIDS in 1989, but his spirit lives on. Judith Jamison, dancer and second AAADT artistic director, recalled that Ailey’s last breath was an inhale; she sees the continued work of the company as his collective and enduring exhale. The splendor of this idea is representative of the film as a whole, which is a poetic biography of a man who fought the demons of fame to tell the Black American saga through movement.

Ailey’s “Revelations” became one of his most iconic works. Drawing on Black culture and the role of church therein, the dancers ooze sorrowful sentimentality and spirited joy. I found the footage of “Revelations” to be the most moving of the works included in the film. 

To meditate briefly on the title of this work, which evokes the book of Revelation and its prophecy of apocalypse, I am struck by the poignancy of this parallel. That such a seminal work, situated at the beginning of Ailey’s illustrious career, should have this association with “end times” is a sort of sweet reclamation. 

Ailey transformed endings into beginnings, just as he made a space for Black joy in dance. The AAADT dancers have done the same, turning the end of Ailey’s life into an opportunity to exhale his creative energy into the world. Jamila Wignot has meticulously sculpted a successful portrait of the amaranthine spirit of an American hero.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.