Aileen Passloff has enjoyed a long career as a choreographer, dancer, director, actor, and teacher. She was active in the 1950s and ’60s in the off-off-Broadway dance and theater movements in Greenwich Village and was a participant in Judson Dance Theater. In Spain, she studied flamenco with the legendary teachers Mercedes and Albano. Some of her dances are nostalgic tributes to classical ballet; others are resolutely modernist. A Bennington graduate, Passloff directed her own company from 1958 to 1968, and for 40 years has taught at Bard College, where she is the L. May Hawver and Wallace Benjamin Flint Professor of Dance. “Teaching is as mysterious and challenging as choreography,” she said to arts administrator Michael Bloom (Bard class of 1973) when they reunited in her New York studio last June.
What accounts for your revolutionary sensibility? I think that people are the way they are because they need to be that way. Being a student at Bennington was revolutionary for me. It rocked every thought I ever had. I came from a conservative background. I had never worn jeans before or sat on the floor. I don’t remember anybody asking me what I thought about something until I got there, and it had never occurred to me to ask myself. I was a dreadful student, but I wouldn’t have given up being there for anything. It gave me the foundation from which I teach.
The dance program at Bard sees artistry and intellect as a single endeavor. How do you think this serves the development of future artists? It’s essential that people have something in their heads besides dancing. When you dance, you have your historybehind you—where you’ve come from, who your friends are, where you ate dinner last night, your dreams. All that is part of the person who is dancing. I am frightened by looking at a dancer in whom there is only dancing going on. People onstage nowadays are often afraid of their humanity or else they are not even asked for it. I am not talking about a heartfelt narrative. I am saying when you put a foot down, you feel a foot on the ground, and that’s a real thing, like washing a dish. It has to have that kind of reality to have an impact on the audience. And for that, there has to be a human being present.
Where does technique fit in? I think we need dance technique in order to be able to do what we want to do. But it is actually only a means to let a dance fly. Technique in itself is meaningless, absolutely zero. It is meant to be learned deeply in order to forget it completely. So only the speaking is there. Without the technique you can’t speak!
How do you see students grow through dancing and making dances? Students are their own teachers, and they have to learn to respect themselves and their own process. Some people grow in spurts, some grow steadily, and some look like they are going backward, but the process is actually mysterious. You have to teach them to look and listen to their own progress or lack thereof. The answers about one’s work aren’t someplace else. They are inside the work and inside oneself.
What for you are the sources of great strength in dance? 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. It is part of how wonderfully well made we are as human beings that we are both strong and soft.
What has changed in your teaching over the past 40 years? In the beginning I was always on my feet, talking too much, moving too much. Finally, I realized that the more I did, the less they did.
How do you teach your composition students to find their own movement? I start with something so unusual that it jumps over their familiar way of working. “Write your name in the air, and I’ll give you one minute. You can’t use your finger or your head or your arm, but any other part of the body.” They have no experience solving that problem in the old way. Suddenly they are finding a fresh solution without access to the thinking part of themselves. I ask them to slow it down or speed it up and sing it at the same time. They begin to feel the release of the breath, the phrasing, and to experience that dancing is a physical activity.
Many students say you’ve changed their lives. Why do you think that is? My job is to keep them company while they discover who they are, and help them not to get in their own way. So if they take some chances, they don’t feel like they are going to get hurt or look stupid or have said something that maybe they shouldn’t have said. They eventually dare to know who they are and what they want! Teaching is helping people to trust themselves, so that they can teach themselves.
I’ve always admired your bold and forthright qualities. Where do you think they come from? I am passionate about dancing. Perhaps that’s the thing people feel. I have known from when I was quite tiny, long before I ever trained at all, that dancing was a powerful speaking from inside oneself, and that it mattered and changed things. Dancing is the deepest kind of speaking we can do.
Photo by Karl Rabe