Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Dancing Through Fire By Dorothy Baker
This is a stunning, moving film. There are no wasted images, no extraneous words. Each frame, each spoken phrase has a powerful impact. Yet the real beauty of it is that its message and tone feel accessible and uplifting throughout. Karina Epperlein's award winning documentary, "Phoenix Dance," is a visual and spiritual journey--a reconnection with a childlike curiosity and trust.
"No matter what happens to us, no matter how it may appear, whether it is sweet or sour, praise or blame, it's all for good. It's molding, it's reshaping, it's training, you never leave training, and in the end, it's beauty." (Alonzo King, choreographer).
We meet the subject, Homer Avila, on a dark stage. His sculpted body is illuminated by a single spotlight and angled so that his right leg seems to be stretched behind him, invisible to the audience. Then the dancer rises from lying face-down to a standing position. At first, it seems we are being fooled by the lighting. Then he moves forward, and it's clear that what we didn't believe is true: the dancer has no right leg.
Don't be misled. This isn't one of those movies where you end up feeling guilty for being depressed about your own problems because you see someone else with a bigger one. Instead, it's the story of a dancer who retains his wholeness and integrity as a person and artist when faced with what appears to be the most devastating loss possible.
"The obstacles that come to us are not to destroy us, but to say to us, do you know who you are? You are more powerful than you think." (Alonzo King ).
Epperlein has found the "Yoda" of choreographers, and uses his many profound statements as the perfect accompaniment to Avila's approach to life.
Avila's humble surrender to what we assume is his life's greatest challenge, and his subsequent rising up to dance again is the theme of both the film and the duet titled "Pas de Deux," (step for two) choreographed for Avila and partner Andrea Flores by the wise and demanding Alonzo King. The development of "Pas" as the one-legged dancer practices and performs it is the documentary's focus.
"'Pas de deux' is about relationship: it could mean you with yourself, you and your god, you and your mother, father, sister, brother, nature, ....,"says King.
Director Epperlein juxtaposes images of Homer at the barre with his crutch under one arm working in Alonzo King's rigorous class against those of "normal" dancers, three months after his amputation due to cancer.
"There is such a delight that challenging limitations allows me." This quote sums up Avila's attitude about life.
Epperlein shows Avila onstage in solo and with Flores, then cuts back to rehearsal where Alonzo King, who appears gigantic next to Avila's delicate but muscular frame, is seen pushing the dancer to the floor repeatedly. And each time, he sags to the floor in surrender, then bounds up again on his one leg like a graceful jumping jack, showing no anger or self-pity.
Performing solo under the single spotlight, he rolls, pivots, leaps, and glides, giving new meaning to the term, "phantom limb". It is only when Andrea Flores joins him that we see his vulnerability. Yet in the bond between the two dancers, a gentle strength is created from this vulnerability. Flores and Avila merge into a single male-female, three-legged dancer onstage, embodying King's demand for trust during rehearsals.
Of his amputation, Homer Avila says, "it's like walking through fire and coming out on the other side. You have to see what's left...."
We learn what's left after our walk through its flames, and how we choose to use it. Homer Avila chose to refuse further treatment for his cancer so he could continue dancing until the day before he died.
My favorite scene is of Homer exiting the studio and playfully dancing his way down steep steps, then pausing to gaze at the evening sky with gratitude and joy.
I was reminded of Alonzo's King's words:
"And in the end, it's beauty......."
Dorothy Baker lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner, and enjoys writing and dancing with a local contact improv group occasionally. This is her second Fanlight Productions film review to appear in Breath and Shadow.
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