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Memorial, 4-30: Funeral for a Friend
Letters from Fiona Marcotty,
Suki John, Aimee Ts'ao, Barbara Chan, David Finkelstein, Paula Jeanine,
Judith Smith, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, and Bill Bragin
Photography by Julie Lemberger, copyright 2004 Julie Lemberger
(Editor's Note: Following
Sunday's passing of Homer Avila, the Dance Insider asked friends and colleagues
to share their most vivid memories of the late dancer and choreographer,
who lost a leg and hip to cancer in 2001 but continued to dance
until last Friday. Following are some of the letters we've received.)
"I'm going to be
going away for a while."
I met Homer for the
first time around 1987 in Boston. From that very first meeting in
Gerri Houlihan's class at the Boston Ballet, he was unfailingly
gracious and personable, eager to share himself and his love of
dance with me every time I saw him. I remember first hearing about
his impending leg amputation, falling into his arms sobbing wildly
and desperately for him. He stunned me with his lack of self-pity,
his resilience and determination, and always, his willingness to
share whatever he could of his own strength with me.
His energy was astounding.
He loved dance so much, and supported so many artists by endlessly
going to and witnessing their work. One friend made a joke that
if you could always find David Dorfman in the audience of just about
any dance concert in New York, you could also simultaneously find
Homer sitting both on his right and his left.
On this past Saturday
night, I went to Donna
Uchizono's show at Dance Theater Workshop, and Homer
was sitting on my left. Afterwards he seemed like he had something
to tell me. "I'm going to be going away for a while -- I've got
some things to work on for myself." One of my companions that night
thought he meant travelling to the Midwest or someplace to initiate
some new project. "Will you email me when you get there?" I asked.
He smiled and said yes, and then put his arms around me, looked
me in the eyes, and said "I'll see you later." I realize now that
he knew exactly what he was saying to me. I am so grateful that
I had that moment of goodbye with one of the most graceful warriors
I've ever known.
New York City
in performance, featuring Edisa Weeks and Homer Avila. Julie
Lemberger photo copyright 2004 Julie Lemberger.
A spiritual journey,
and a comical bus ride down Fifth Avenue
Shortly after his leg
was amputated, I went to visit Homer in the hospital across from
the rose garden on Fifth Avenue. There was a tag sale going on in
the vestibule, so I bought him a plant and tried to find his room.
I saw him first from the back -- standing, of course -- amidst the
hub of people in the lobby. I was a huge eight months pregnant,
and I had hoped that the surprise of seeing me so transformed would
make him smile. It did. We went to his room and talked. The nurses
were familiar and friendly. Homer made friends everywhere he went.
Now it was his turn to surprise me; he was going to a rehearsal.
As we spoke, he gathered his things together in a dance bag and
prepared to go. He didn't know exactly what he was going to do in
the studio, he told me, but he would find out once he was there.
We know now that he was embarking on an artistic as well as spiritual
journey in many rehearsals that followed.
Homer and I went outside
together and waited for the bus. We helped each other onto the bus,
Homer with one leg and me with my belly skewing my balance. We talked
all the way downtown, and Homer was neither Polyanna nor morbid,
but honest with himself and with me. He was trying to figure out
how to sit with only one hip.
We realized we must
have seemed a very odd pair to those other riders on the bus. We
laughed about it and rode all the way downtown. I feel so lucky
to have shared that ride with Homer.
A beautiful dancer, with or without the leg
Homer was such an inspiration
for many people, including me. I'm grateful for the fact that he
went so quickly, just after performing, at his peak so to speak....
He would have hated to linger on the sidelines, as any dancer would.....
He was such a beautiful dancer, with or without the leg. I remember
seeing him in January with Axis, and forgetting that he was missing
one. I wish I had known him.
-- Aimee Ts'ao
Pirouettes from one foot
Thanks for writing a
memoriam for Homer. I wouldn't have known for months
otherwise. Both Homer and I had a cancer diagnosis at around the
same time and he served as inspiration at times when I would feel
unlucky and pathetic, so it is especially poignant for me to hear
of his death. Though I was the first to return to Zvi Gotheiner's
Saturday ballet class, it was Homer's determination to continue
to take class that was so admirable. He was able to do pirouettes
from one foot, and from the front, he looked as if he was in a perfect
arabesque. What a brave soul he is. I will remember him always.
-- Barbara Chan
New York City
No choreographic opportunity left behind
I am a staff musician
at the Alvin Ailey School. Several years ago (when Homer still had
two legs) I walked into a studio at Ailey, prepared to accompany
a Graham technique class. The regularly scheduled teacher was not
there. Instead, I found Homer, choreographing a complicated sequence
with the students. They were engaged in strange lifts and other
kinds of unconventional partnering, and all seemed to be having
a marvelous time. I was surprised, because I hadn't been told that
Homer would be a substitute teacher or that he would be teaching
A few minutes later,
the regular teacher of the class walked in. Homer said "Thanks so
much, guys!" and left the studio, applauded by the students. It
turned out that Homer had been walking past the studio, peered in,
and saw that the teacher was late, and that a room full of highly
trained dancers were sitting there with nothing to do for a few
minutes. He was such a driven choreographer that he couldn't let
this opportunity go to waste, and he rushed into the room and quickly
got the students caught up in his enthusiasm for trying out his
latest partnering ideas.
Homer loved dance so
much that he was hard to resist.
-- David Finkelstein
New York City
"Sometimes things are just perfect."
I have been a staff
musician at the Alvin Ailey School for 12 years. Over this time,
I got to know Homer Avila and played for his partnering class that
he taught with (Avila/Weeks co-director) Edisa Weeks. I considered
him a friend and a hero.
Although I have several
fond memories of Homer, the most vivid is walking through Damrosch
Park at Lincoln Center with him last year. Although he was tired
and had just returned from a grueling trip, he stopped midway through
the park and closed his eyes as the beautiful sunset bathed his
face in golden light. "Sometimes things are just perfect," he said,
drinking in the full moment.
There was something
amazing about that day, that this man with all his challenges could
give himself thoroughly to such a pure feeling.
We must all keep him
in our hearts as the bravest one among us.
-- Paula Jeanine (a.k.a.
New York City
I first heard about
Homer Avila through Bill T. Jones, Paul Ben-Itzak and Jeremy Alliger,
who all contacted me after Homer's amputation and asked me if I
would get in touch with him. Homer and I share the dubious task
of having an acquired disability and a dance career, but since I
had a lot more practice at the disability part (including as artistic
director of Axis Dance Company, a mixed-ability company), they thought
I might be a good support to Homer. I felt a bit odd not knowing
Homer personally but I gave him a call. We hit it off right away
and have stayed in close touch over the last three years.
When I saw the duet
"Pas" Alonzo King had made for Homer and Andrea Flores, I knew that
it had to be presented in the Bay Area. The work, Homer and
Andrea were stunning -- riveting really. I invited them to perform
the duet in our home season in 2002. They brought down the house.
The performance was particularly moving for me and for some of Homer's
Bay Area family because we knew about the lung cancer (which had
been diagnosed by that time). Though his artistic future was brighter
than ever it would probably not be lengthy and could never be long
Homer found out he had
lung cancer right around the first anniversary of his amputation,
in April 2002. He called me to tell me and to talk about it. It
was devastating news -- we had a good cry but managed to joke about
how fucked up it was. Homer was not one to feel sorry for himself.
He didn't want anyone to know because he didn't want to be seen
as a 'doomed man.' I told some folks around here anyway because
I just couldn't bear the news myself. I was relieved when he opted
not to get chemo, radiation, surgery -- no doctors could convince
him that it was the best thing to do.
That's when Homer started
truly dancing for his life. He maintained a maniacal schedule, doing
everything, everywhere that he possibly could -- which, I might
add, drove those of us who were dealing with Homer's logistics a
bit more than nuts! Homer's sense of time and being on time and
keeping in touch were uniquely his own and just not very good. But
you could only stay mad at him for a short time because he was Homer
and he was awesome and lovely and he absolutely needed to do it
all while he could!
Homer felt that dancing
was keeping him alive. Many who have watched Homer dance throughout
his career and Homer himself felt that he genuinely found his 'center'
as a dancer through this odyssey of his last three years. What he
did on one leg was just short of unbelievable, but it was his powerful
presence and his passion for dance and being a dancer that drew
us all in.
I spoke to him about
a month ago and he was exhausted more than usual and sounded a little
concerned. But still when I found out about his death I was completely
thrown off whack -- I just didn't think it would be this soon. You've
got to give it to Homer because he went out dancing and he left
an incredible mark on this world.
I'll cherish the images
of him in Vic Mark's poignant work "Solo" standing up on his one
amazing leg and shouting his name. "Homer David Avila! Homer David
Avila! Homer David Avila!"
Barbara Kaplan and I
are planning a memorial for Homer sometime in June at San Francisco
Dance Center. Stay tuned for details.
With love and appreciation
-- Judith Smith
Homer's Last Dance
I am the founder and
artistic director of Dancing Wheels, a professional integrated company
comprised of stand-up and sit-down (wheelchair) dancers. I met Homer
two years ago through one of my former dancers, Bethany Prater.
Bethany took me to a showcase performance while in NYC for the APAP
conference. I was astounded at Homer's incredible balances and unique
approach to choreography.
I waited to meet him.
He had taken class with Bethany and was eager to meet as she had
told him of our company and the work we do throughout the country.
After that Homer and I exchanged numerous e-mails. Six months later,
we finally managed to meet again over coffee during another visit
to NY. At that meeting we finally made plans for Homer to choreograph
a piece for our company, which is located in Cleveland.
It took six months longer
(January 2004) for us to meet again for what I thought would be
the final confirmation to his choreographic ideas for our company.
Instead, he quietly and peacefully shared with me the diagnosis
that he had received from the doctors during the holidays. He simply
stated that the doctors had found a tumor on his lung and one on
his heart and that he had from four to six months to live. His news
seemed so stunning, almost surreal. I could hardly breath. His friend
Patricia was also present and they went on to share stories of their
relationship and journey together. Homer asked me not to share this
information as he had not yet told his family and associates.
At the end of our meeting,
we both felt that we wanted to continue with our choreographic plans.
I suggested that he create a solo for one of my non-disabled dancers....
I felt that it would be an honor to carry on Homer's work and it
certainly would be a gift to Mac, a dancer who has been dedicated
and supportive of our company for many years.
In March, Homer did
come to Cleveland for a week and began to work with Mac on a piece
that he explained represented the past, present and future. He gave
a poem to me that the piece was to be based upon and some other
unusual pieces, like sacred papers that (some cultures) burn to
give homage to the dead and luck to the living. He wanted them burned
at the performance. Mac had a wonderful learning experience with
Homer and we as friends celebrated at the home of two mutual friends,
Liz Flynn and Hernando Cortez.
Homer was to fly back
to Cleveland this past Monday to finish his piece. I received a
call from his associate Ann Green to say that Homer had passed on.
The piece that Homer
was created was to be premiered May 22 in Cleveland for a concert
entitled the Cleveland Dance Connection. Our plan is to bring conclusion
to be piece and perform it as a memorial to Homer. Mac will follow
Homer's notes and carry out his wishes at the performance at Playhouse
Square Center in Cleveland. The piece will conclude the evening.
Homer indeed blessed us with his great spirit and his incredible
-- Mary Verdi-Fletcher
Funeral for a Friend, and a one-legged samba
We have the Dirty Dozen
Brass Band doing their Funeral For a Friend program of dirges and
second lines next week (at Joe's Pub). Since Homer and I originally
bonded over New Orleans music, it seems fitting...
I remember shortly after
he lost his leg, he came out to GrooveJet, where we were doing GlobeSonic
at the time, and knocked people out with his one-legged samba. It
was such a classic moment -- flirting with the bartender, dancing
up a storm, no sense of limitation, just the joy of dancing. Completely
irrepressible.... I'll miss him.
New York City
The big picture
As Bill pointed out
in a note to his Joe's Pub list, Homer's story is more than a personal
saga; it's at least in part a reflection on "the US's woeful health
care system and lack of support systems for independent artists,"
as Homer discussed in this Village Voice article, written
shortly before his leg and hip were amputated. In this week's Voice,
dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer offers a moving distillation of Homer's
story. To read Chris Dohse's Flash Review including Homer's June
2002 comeback performance at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church,
please click here. In August 2002, Homer gave his first post-operative
full-evening performance, at the Kennedy Center. Please click here to read Julia Ward's Dance Insider Flash
Review. To watch a video of the performance, please click here, and scroll down to
"Play this Performance." (The video's a little dark at the beginning,
as it starts with the onstage projection of an earlier performance
of Homer and Edisa's "Dubious Faith.")
-- Paul Ben-Itzak
A last dance for Homer
(Editor's Note: Homer
was remembered yesterday afternoon in Manhattan at the John Krtil
Funeral Home on the Upper East Side. Last night, Bill Bragin sent
us the following note, which we take the liberty of sharing.)
service was really moving today, sad and inspiring at the same time
-- a room full (overfull) of friends and loved ones sharing memories
and stories. The killer moment, that finally broke me down, was
when Edisa thanked everyone, and then went into a very short dance.
It was far more eloquent than anything verbal could have been in
this situation, and there were a ton of eloquent words too.
(To read more memories
of Homer, from Dana Caspersen, David White, and Homer's sister Charlene
Van Fleet, please click here.)
(Edisa Weeks and Homer Avila) in their 1997 holiday card. Julie
Lemberger photo copyright 2004 Julie Lemberger.
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