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Aileen Passloff, ca. 1960s. Photographer unknown.
Aileen Passloff, ca. 1960s. Photographer unknown.

Aileen Passloff (1931–2020)

Dancer, choreographer, actor, and teacher Aileen Passloff, whose seven-decade career is intimately woven with the development of postmodern dance in New York, died on November 3 of breast cancer. She was ninety years old. A believer that “dancing is the deepest kind of speaking we can do,” Passloff taught dance at Bard College for forty years, eventually becoming the L. May Hawver and Wallace Benjamin Flint Professor of Dance.  

Raised in Queens and trained as a young girl in classical ballet by a Russian dancer, Passloff began attending Manhattan’s School of American Ballet when she was thirteen years old. It was there that she met artist and choreographer James Waring, who would remain a lifelong friend and collaborator. In 1948, she entered Bennington College and was thrust into the unfamiliar world of modern dance. Being there, she later recalled for Dance magazine, “rocked every thought I ever had.” Upon graduation, she joined David Vaughan and Waring’s cooperative, mixed-discipline company Dance Associates, where she danced alongside Paul Taylor, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Edward Denby, and many others.

Waring’s choreography drew on the aleatory methods championed by John Cage; as a member of Dance Associates, Passloff became enmeshed within a scene that included Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, LaMonte Young, Frank O’Hara, and the Living Theater. In 1958, she founded the Aileen Passloff and Dance Company, an endeavor that lasted for ten years, until her move to Bard’s dance faculty in 1969. Over the decade, Passloff was active in off-off-Broadway productions by the likes of Maria Irene Fornes and Al Carmines as well as in the Judson Dance Theater, where she performed with Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, and Trisha Brown.

Passloff, who choreographed more than 200 pieces during her lifetime, has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the program for Cultural Cooperation between the Spanish Ministry of Culture and U.S. Universities. She was named a Post-Doctoral Fulbright Scholar for Research in Spanish Dance in Madrid in 1992. In 2018, Passloff was a part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done.”

Passloff, for whom dancing was “like breathing,” continued to make dances after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and last year unveiled new work at New York’s 92nd Street Y, where she made her dancing debut seventy-six years prior. “Strength is a mix of support and vulnerability—the ability to make the bones do the supporting and allow the flesh to be vulnerable at the same time,” Passloff once said about finding fortitude in her art. “It is part of how wonderfully well made we are as human beings that we are both strong and soft.”