Wheelchair dancer Alice Sheppard is one of the central figures in Invitation to Dance. Alice is an unlikely dancer. Trained first as a classical musician, she then earned a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at Cornell, leading to a tenured faculty position in the English Department at Penn State.
In March of 2004, she found herself at an academic conference on disability studies, learning to navigate in a newly acquired wheelchair. Unfamiliar with both disability studies and rolled mobility, she was a curious and hungry participant in the goings on.
It was there that Alice and Simi first met. And it was there that Alice met Homer Avila, an extraordinary dancer, who, in the early part of his career danced on two legs, and then, following cancer surgery and an amputation, on one. His performance at that conference in Atlanta was his last public performance; he died 6 weeks later.
|Photo: Homer arched over a small chair, arm extended above his head|
In the following excerpt from Invitation to Dance, Alice describes that first encounter with Homer. We first see Simi and Alice talking in Central Park, and then Homer coming down a long flight of steps using crutches, and playfully twirling in place. Video of Homer comes from Karina Epperlein's Phoenix Dance.
Homer’s memorial service, on April 18, 2005, almost a year after he died, was held at the legendary Danspace on the Lower East Side. Three weeks ago, several people who knew Homer were in the audience at Danspace to see Alice perform in ‘being Here’ by Marjani Forté. The NY Times’ dance critic Brian Seibert noted that “Alice Sheppard pilots her wheelchair with aggression and melancholic grace.”
|Photo: Alice in a duet with a standing dancer- New York Times: March 22, 2013|
But others noted beauty and power that Homer might have envisioned when he dared Alice to take a dance class. Janet Lyon, an Associate Professor of English, and Alice’s former colleague at Penn State wrote: “… when she made her first crossing of the stage in her wheelchair, from the back to the front of the stage/space, she established the aesthetics of movement against which the rest of the choreography would be contrasted. Slow, effortless, unimaginably graceful in the ways that she integrated the lower body--which registered as noiselessly flowing wheels, gliding across the floor as if on ice--and the upper body, with arms and shoulders and neck arching into the serpentine flow of the wheels. A fluid, floating port de bras. It was gorgeous.”
Edisa Weeks, previously Homer's partner in Avila/Weeks Dance and now Choreographer/Educator with Delirious Dances said: "I enjoyed Alice's duet in Marjani's work. It was exciting to see a duet that wasn't precious, cautious, polite and was about aggressively and physically connecting. Made me think of a conversation with Homer about how some people assumed he was weak and easy to take advantage of because he was perceived as being "handicapped.""
Exactly 8 years ago today we gathered at Danspace to recognize the genius that was Homer Avila. His legacy (so to speak) lives on in dancers whose lives he touched. Homer’s bold dare to Alice late one night in a hotel bar clearly took root and flourished. We repurpose that invitation in our film, and extend it to all.