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Homer Avila by Robin Hoffman.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
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Homer Avila died Sunday night, at the age of 49, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, where he’d checked himself in Saturday. “He was dancing until Friday, checked himself into the hospital Saturday night, and was gone by twilight Sunday,” reports Pentacle’s Ivan Sygoda. “The cancer that cost him his hip and leg had metastasized and reached his lungs.”
The journalist trades in the effects of sympathy. By his reporting and then the selection and arranging of details, he can write an obituary to pull your heart out. I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years, since a high school English teacher I didn’t know that well passed away unexpectedly, and I set about interviewing his colleagues. Did I know what they told me was moving? Yes. Was I moved by their words? Yes, but it was probably a detached empathy. This one is hard.
Homer danced with Momix and with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, where he would meet his partner Edisa Weeks. I first caught them in an evening of performance in a church basement on the Upper East Side, where their duet “Dubious Faith” was the highlight. Homer played a priest, with the taller Edisa lifting and twirling him; Homer walked on upended wine glasses. More miracles were to come.
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By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
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In a feeble attempt to counter his being called out by myself and others over his latest cat-calling masquerading as criticism, in which he snipped that New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle, seen in “The Nutcracker,” must be eating too many sugar-plums, Alastair Macaulay has now made it clearer than ever how unqualified he is to be a critic. How long is his shameless employer the New York Times going to continue embarrassing itself and denigrating the high arts of dance and criticism by setting loose this unqualified intellectual feather-weight on a major high art?
In a response to my and others’ criticism published in Saturday’s Times, Macaulay’s attempt to justify his picking on performers for what he considers to be their excess pounds actually backfires, instead revealing his own lack of substance as a critic and total lack of understanding of what art is all about.
“Go to any gallery and you see how painters and sculptors for centuries have made fat an issue,” Macaulay writes. “The nudes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Renoir show women with curves that are no longer part of any fashionable idea of beauty. Venus or Diana had a belly like that? I love most of them myself, but I have friends who object. Either way, all of us acknowledge that weight plays a part in our response.” What you mean ‘Us,’ white man?
Not content to confine his philistine perspective to one art, Macaulay is now angling to become the Times’s resident village idiot on the visual arts (which is not to insult the village idiot, who would be expected to be less judgmental). This statement has got to be the most idiotic I’ve ever read from the mouth of an alleged critic. It’s almost hard to know which idiocy to start with.
The ‘issue’ for Renoir was not ‘fat,’ but how to use nature (chiefly light), matter (his painting tools), his own technical prowess and aesthetic perspective, and his human subjects to make a work of art. And a critic is not “all of us.” His or her role is to evaluate the work of art — how, and how well, the artist uses the tools of his trade to capture the subject, be it on a canvas or on a stage, how effective the work is as art – and to respond to it, tapping on a range of his own individual intellectual, aesthetic, poetic, and sensory resources.
“Some… have argued that the body in ballet is ‘irrelevant,’ Macaulay goes on. “Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career…. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.” No Alastair: If you can’t tell the difference between appearance and art, between surface sheen and technical virtuosity, do not choose criticism as a career. And the problem with you is not that you are too severe, but that you are so superficial. The only legitimate weight problem here is the featherweight quality of your pen and your intelligence.
Dance Insider Illustration by and copyright Robin Hoffman.
Homer Avila remembered by Fiona Marcotty, Suki John, Aimee Ts’ao, Barbara Chan, David Finkelstein, Paula Jeanine, Judith Smith, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, Bill Bragin, Dana Caspersen, David White, Charlene Van Fleet, John Avila, Theresa Sareo, Cherlyn Smith, and Paul Ben-Itzak, with original art by Robin Hoffman.
(Editor’s Note: Our friend, colleague, and hero the dancer and choreographer Homer Avila passed away 13 years ago this month in New York City, from cancer. Despite losing a leg to the disease, he continued to dance and to live practically until the end. The following tributes from the Dance Insider Archives were first published April 30, May 3, and May 17, 2004.)
“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 joked 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 e-mail 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
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 memorium 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
Above: Homer Avila
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
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 the 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, Cleveland
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 see elsewhere in the DI Archives. In August 2002, Homer gave his first post-operative full-evening performance, at the Kennedy Center. See elsewhere in the Archives for Julia Ward’s Dance Insider Flash Review, as well as for Maura Nguyen Donohue’s Flash of the last performance Homer attended.
— Paul Ben-Itzak, Paris
A last dance for Homer
(Homer was remembered April 29 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.
Changing the Sheets
I was just now trying to strip the bed in my apartment in Frankfurt where Patricia and Homer slept last week, just before he died. It is very hard to do.
All the different Homer streams fly from it to me, through me. Precious and painful to receive, to hold, to let go. Homer’s eager heart, his joy, his frustrations, his inveterate lateness, his insistence on doing way more than was possible, his stubborn, joyous uncurling toward Patricia, the liquid brilliance of his moving, his great eloquence, his bravery, his stories, his laughter, his insisting on carrying the watermelon down to the stream himself and falling down the hill with the huge knife and only telling me about it later. His graciousness, his listening to Patricia singing him to sleep over the phone as he lay dying, his swinging in circles in the snow in Vermont and secretly stuffing a brownie in my bag to be discovered later. His wish to know. His decency, his humility. His love for his family. His anger, his searching. His huge gift to me. Homer’s love of beauty. Homer’s beauty. The subtraction of Homer from the world. The honor of having shared it with him.
— Dana Caspersen, Frankfurt, Germany
I am writing to further acknowledge, actually applaud, the embodiment of grace and courage that is both the fact and memory of Homer Avila. Maybe because I went back so far in this community with DTW, I took Homer for granted as a permanent part of the landscape, one of the never-say-die dancers who live tenaciously at the intersection of art and citizenship.
As in Phyllis Lamhut’s masterpiece of loss and losing, “Passing,” the almost magical transitional moment of now-he’s-with-us, now-he’s-not — dancing, observing, charming, reassuring, suddenly leaving — is more than mortal. Like Amy Sue Rosen before him, the creative force was never so strong, never so life-giving, as when it was confronted with the bleak certitude of its antithesis. And never has the argument been so strongly underscored that there is, for both artist and human being, a warp in time that simply opens between a visible today and an incomprehensible tomorrow. All that’s required to pass through is imagination, passion and the usual kit bag of tools.
Thanks, Homer, for showing us the way.
— David White
Homer was my brother-in-law — although for a short time, to him and his family, I always remained a sister. I had to tell you that what you have written here about my brother is the most beautiful thing I have ever read! Thank you!
We will be having a service for him in New Orleans around May 20; this is to have enough time for his brother, John, to return to California from New York and get to New Orleans, as well as his nephew, Michael (my son) to get time off from the Marine Corps to come home. I would like your permission to share your words at his service here in New Orleans….
I must tell you that Homer was always the way you knew him — all through school and growing up — he was always, always on the move and on the go! And he was always telling the rest of us to “never give up your dreams” and “don’t accept failure as an option.” He always had a smile to share and an optimism that none could surpass. And I know that it is because of his faith in God and his love of dance that this is what his destiny was to be — and to the end, Homer lived his life loving what he does and doing what he does best — DANCE!
Thank you again for your beautiful words — you and all his friends in New York and around the world are in our prayers.
— Charlene Van Fleet
Homer was my hero
Thank you so much for allowing Homer’s friends an opportunity to share his memory with others in the Dance Insider. I am deeply touched and grateful to everyone for their kind words. I am making hard copies so our mother may read the legacy of love he leaves with his passing. Over the years, I frequently questioned why and how he could dedicate his life to a pursuit that was so grueling on his body and had virtually no monetary gain. He always laughed and said, “Little brother, I am earning so much more than I will ever spend.” Homer was my hero; in the age of multi-million dollar sports stars with record endorsements, Homer devoted his life to the beautiful art form of dance. He was such a gifted athlete that I am sure he would have been successful at any number of mainstream athletic endeavors. The ceremony of April 29 was a celebration of a life not wasted; the love and gratitude expressed by all those lovely people who Homer had touched was by far the most inspirational experience of my life.
My big brother, Homer, lived and died with riches that only those dedicated to unselfishness and with a pure spirit will ever know. Thank you for making his journey on this earth wonderful, he truly loved the dance community. I am sure he is dancing now without the confines of a handicapped body.
— God bless,
John Avila, Livermore, California
Anniversary of an amputation
My name is Theresa Sareo and I am a singer/songwriter who knew Homer for a brief, yet precious time. I was hit by an SUV in midtown on June 11, 2002 and lost my entire right leg at my hip. While I was in the hospital, a dancer friend kept mentioning Homer to me and I think I got an e-mail from him. Upon returning home from my two-month hospital stay I started looking for him and we finally met one year ago. I was taken by his loving, embracing, courageous spirit and knew I was befriending someone very special. He ended up throwing himself a ‘birthday’ celebration (I believe it was the anniversary of his amputation rather than his actual birthday); (it was) Homer’s way of embracing his life and his experience through his love of dance and friendship. He graciously invited me to perform with him at City Center, singing in between his dance pieces. I was so inspired by this multi-artistic event and was hoping to do another similar performance with him again.
It’s so hard when people we love and need in our lives disappear. Though I am grieving this loss, I am grateful that Homer lived his life on his terms — clear and in direct contact with all that he loved and cherished — and that he didn’t suffer and danced up until his final day. He may have known all along that he was “on his final leg,” and instead of spending the time grieving for his life, he chose to express and learn and give, thus I got to know and love him for myself. I am moved by his words when he lists the things he lost because I often mourn what I have lost too. I see how his final loss, being his fear, became the key to living his life solely through his spirit. It is how we all aspire to be and I am the greater for having been a witness to his legacy.
…. Thank you for writing such a perfect article in honor of his life.
Improvisation with two-legger
I had the great honor (and mostly joy) of performing with Homer at a gallery opening in New York this April 1, featuring technology designed to allow children with no limb function to “dance” vicariously through watching live feed video and using computers. I had known and admired him as a dance colleague for many years before, but had never worked with him. It was amazing enough to have known what he endured and overcame, but to perform with him was so wonderful, so normal…. Two dancers improvising (one “two-legger” as he called me, and him), discovering… what can we do? What works for both of us and the piece…? I then returned from touring to hear of his (seemingly, after all of this) sudden death. Oh, dear Homer…. My admiration for his continued artistry is huge. My anger at his death after the courage he showed is even more immense….
— Cherlyn Smith