Home Art & Culture Aileen Passloff, Dancer, Choreographer and Teacher, Dies at 89

Aileen Passloff, Dancer, Choreographer and Teacher, Dies at 89

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Aileen Passloff, whose career as a dancer, choreographer and broadly influential teacher spanned ballet, modern dance and postmodern dance, died on Nov. 3 in Manhattan. She was 89.

Her death, in hospice care at NYU Langone Health, was caused by heart failure resulting from complications of lung cancer, which had been diagnosed five years ago, according to the dancer Charlotte Hendrickson, a friend.

For Ms. Passloff, a former member of the Judson Dance Theater, the experimental 1960s collective that led to postmodern dance, was devoted to all aspects of the form.

“I don’t remember not dancing,” she said last year in an interview with The New York Times. “I would be set out in the backyard to play, and to play was to dance. For truth.”

“For truth” was her refrain in any conversation. Her thirst for truth and beauty in dance was vast: She was always searching for it — through her own body and through her dancers’ bodies.

“Aileen used the body to understand life in a way that just kind of says hello to the world and celebrates all of what we can be,” the dancer and choreographer Arthur Aviles said in a phone interview. “She was helping us to understand our body in relationship to expression — in relationship to nature, life, the earth, the sky.”

Like Mr. Aviles, Ms. Hendrickson was a student of Ms. Passloff’s at Bard College, where Ms. Passloff was co-chair of the dance and drama department from 1969 to 1990. Ms. Hendrickson, who went on to dance extensively in Ms. Passloff’s works, said she had been insecure when she arrived at Bard’s campus, in the Hudson Valley. Ms. Passloff changed that.

“In Aileen’s classes, there was room for everyone to be just who they were,” she said. “She would always say that we’re wonderfully well-made — like a sweet tiger or like a tree. She would create this environment where you were expected to do your best, of course, but you were also, more importantly, expected to, like, speak from your own point of view — to have the courage to know yourself and to share that.”

Ms. Hendrickson was smitten with her as a choreographer as well. She recalled a performance at Bard in which Ms. Passloff presented her dance “Paseo,” in which six dancers wear the bata de cola — “the Spanish skirt that drags behind kind of like a wedding gown,” Ms. Hendrickson said.

“They just looked like these majestic dinosaurs that were so weighted and sensual and full of life,” she added.

Aileen Passloff was born on Oct. 21, 1931, in New York City to Morris and Flora Passloff. She grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. Her father was a milliner. Her sister, the painter Pat Passlof, was a member of the New York school of Abstract Expressionists. (She dropped the second “f” in her surname after finishing a painting and realizing that she didn’t have room for it on the canvas.)

As a girl, Ms. Passloff attended the School of American Ballet, an affiliate of New York City Ballet, and studied with the Russian teacher Anatole Oboukhov. “He taught me how to fly,” Ms. Passloff said in 2019.

Muriel Stuart, another revered faculty member — English-born, she had danced with Anna Pavlova — auditioned Ms. Passloff for admission to the school. “She was important in my life,” Ms. Passloff said of Ms. Stuart. “She had a wonderful lyricism and a musicality, and later she would come and see me dance.”

While studying at the school she met James Waring, the experimental choreographer and artist who at the time was a student in the level above hers. “He was a gift from God,” she said. Neither of them having much money, he taught her how to sneak into ballet performances at City Center in Manhattan by climbing its fire escape.

She made her debut in Mr. Waring’s company in 1945 at age 14. She would go on to dance with among others, Katherine Litz, Toby Armour and Remy Charlip, an original member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who became known for writing and illustrating children’s books.

It was Mr. Waring who encouraged her to choreograph, even though she told him that she wasn’t interested in it. She went on to make numerous works. She also acted in experimental plays by the Cuba-American playwright María Irene Fornés.

From 1949 to 1953, Ms. Passloff studied dance and social science at Bennington College in Vermont and went on to direct her own company in New York for 10 years. She also appeared in two films by Marta Renzi: “Her Magnum Opus” (2017), in which Ms. Passloff portrays the beloved teacher of a group of artists, and “Arthur & Aileen” (2012), a short documentary featuring her and Mr. Aviles.

Along with Ms. Hendrickson and Mr. Aviles, her students at Bard included many who would make a mark in contemporary dance, among them the theater and opera director Anne Bogart and the choreographers Dusan Tynek and David Parker. Entranced by flamenco dance, Ms. Passloff studied it under the master teachers Mercedes and Albano and introduced flamenco to the Bard curriculum.

Ms. Passloff’s marriage to Robert Farren ended in divorce. They had met on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s film “Killer’s Kiss” (1955). She was a dancer in the movie, and Mr. Farren was a member of the crew. She is survived by her cousins Stephen and Ellen Passloff.

Ms. Hendrickson said that while in the hospital, Ms. Passloff would tell people that she loved them from the moment she saw them.

“At first, I thought, gosh, it’s really funny that she said that to so many people,” Ms. Hendrickson said. “And then I realized, no — she did love in a radical way. She really believed that we’re all connected.”

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