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Flash Flashback, 4-14: Funeral for a Friend
Homer's Odyssey

Letters from Fiona Marcotty, Suki John, Aimee Ts'ao, Barbara Chan, David Finkelstein, Paula Jeanine, Judith Smith, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, Bill Bragin, Dana Caspersen, David White, and Charlene Van Fleet
Photography by Julie Lemberger, copyright 2004 Julie Lemberger

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Archives. This Flash Memorial originally appeared on April 30, 2004. On Monday beginning at 7 p.m., Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church hosts a memorial to Homer Avila, including video-taped performances by Homer of work by Dana Caspersen, Alonzo King, and Victoria Marks.)

(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.

--Fiona Marcotty
New York City

Avila/Weeks 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.

--Suki John
Storrs, Connecticut

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
San Francisco

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 rep.

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. Paula Potocki)
New York City

Homer's Odyssey

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 enough.

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 for Homer....

-- Judith Smith
Oakland, California

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 talent.

-- 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.

--Bill Bragin
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.

-- 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.)

The funeral/memorial 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.)
Avila/Weeks (Edisa Weeks and Homer Avila) in their 1997 holiday card. Julie Lemberger photo copyright 2004 Julie Lemberger.

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