Aileen Passloff (1931–2020)

December 14th, 2020

I MET AILEEN PASSLOFF IN 1981, when I took her barefoot ballet class at Bard College. As a freshman, I wanted to major in theater, but the Drama/Dance department required students to also study dance. I thought since I had an athletic background, it couldn’t hurt. When I stepped into her studio, I didn’t know I was being taught by a legendary member of Judson Dance Theater.

Aileen had come through the School of American Ballet, but that wasn’t how she brought her students into the world of dance. She’d say things like, listen to the earth as you brush your foot along the floor, as if the floor is saying something that you’re curious about hearing. That made sense to me. I felt she’d turned my body into a listening device.

Aileen exhibited tenderness toward this queer Puerto Rican boy/man from the mean streets of Jamaica, Queens, and the Bronx. Once, after I performed a dance I’d choreographed, she gently said, “Come here, Beauty.” (She called all her students Beauty.) She sang a nonsensical song like, Ooh dee doe! Oh dee doe! as she took my left arm and lightly touched my pinky, convincing it to join the rest of my body. She said in a soothing motherly voice, “Oh, pinky wants to fly off! It’s okay, pinky. We are here. Oh, sweet pinky, it’s okay!” I hadn’t been aware that my pinkies were unintentionally shooting out from my body like antennae, betraying a nervousness that subverted and undermined the story I was attempting to tell.

Aileen possessed a beautiful mix of tenderness and wackiness that reminded me of dance pieces she created which evolved into series of movements that depicted the fantastical worlds that she loved to conjure, worlds of powerful beauty and strong grace. As a student, I got to fling my body into her work with youthful abandon, and we continued our relationship even after I graduated.

I loved the intimacy of our conversations when she directed me, which was very different when I was eighteen than when I was nearly fifty, in 2012, and we worked on Gymnopédie, lovingly captured in Marta Renzi’s film Arthur & Aileen. Our connection was natural, and its depth and my love for her were palpable. Oral history coordinator and audio archivist Cassie Mey noted this when she asked me to interview Aileen for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

I never imagined all those times we spent in the studio, in performance, or when I first stepped into her class in 1981, that forty years later I’d be by her side while she was in hospice. Charlotte Hendrickson, one of the great interpreters of Aileen’s work, invited me. Among the last words I heard Aileen say, as Sister Moon overlooked the Empire State building, were “Wow! What a beautiful sky!” She closed her eyes, smiled, puckered her lips, and blew me a kiss. Charlotte gave me Aileen’s hand as she caressed Aileen’s ankle. I was strangely afraid as I waited for it to turn cold. Aileen went, yet her hand stayed warm in mine.

Arthur Avilés is a dancer, choreographer, and co-founder of BAAD! the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance.