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Aileen Passloff, Stepping Forward: One Foot (in front of the other)

A fascinating look at the choreography of one of the members of the revolutionary Judson Dance Movement and two of her mentors.

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Aileen Passloff (Photo credit: Bob Vergara)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

As I sat watching works by Aileen Passloff and her peers an image popped into my mind:  dedicated paleontologists slowly, but determinedly, chipping away layers of ordinary rocks to expose the beautiful fossils within.

Passloff is now an energetic 87.  A pioneering member of the legendary Judson Church Dance Movement in the sixties, she emerged from a classical ballet background to embrace the manifesto of avant-garde minimalism.  She learned to chip away at the aggregations that this assembly of like-minded dance makers thought were polluting the world of dance.  This movement/philosophy influenced future generations of choreographers and was immortalized recently in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art which featured Passloff’s contributions, among others.

Just like those paleontologists, Passloff and her colleagues hacked at the art of choreography, tossing the frou-frou, elaborate costumes, technically demanding steps and superficial entertainment aspects that dominated even the works of modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm (who had the audacity of “wasting” her talents choreographing Broadway musicals!), revealing the bare essentials—walking, running, performing ordinary tasks like moving chairs about, etc.—often going to the extreme of not moving at all.

Aileen Passloff, Stepping Forward: One Foot (in front of the other), part of the Dig Dance series at the 92nd Street Y, was a sampler of works by her mentors and herself, an in-depth look at the choreography of several important artists.  Eight of her works, including the most recent, plus one each by James Waring and Remy Charlip made for a rich overview of an important period in American modern dance.

Stepping Forward began with excerpts from two documentary videos, “Arthur and Aileen” and “Her Magnum Opus,” the first showing Passloff working intimately, yet intensely, with Arthur Aviles, an experienced dancer and the second a glimpse of Passloff performing a Charlip work that appeared later in the program.  Both films were by Marta Renzi, a renowned choreographer in her own right.

Arthur Aviles in a scene from Aileen Passloff’s “Frolic” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Of Passloff’s eight works, the newest, “Frolic,” (2018) to music by Erik Satlie (“Trois morceau en la forme de poire”) came closest in spirit to her classical ballet origins, utilizing whimsical characters to tell a gentle daydream.  To the calm music played live by pianists Michael Cherry and Douglas Schultz, a gentle Ballerina (Esmé Boyce), a boisterous, muscular Joker (Aviles), a sassy Horse Trainer (Pam Wess), two cavorting Horses (S. Asher Gelman and Mati Gelman) and a caring Mother (Charlotte Hendrickson)—all costumed in appropriate, colorful outfits—danced solos and duets, finally uniting for what—in minimalist terms—was a grand finale complete with cartwheels, simple ballet steps, horsey prancing, and the entire cast competing for attention from the rapt audience.

Although none of the works was in the austere minimalist style, simplicity and clarity reigned in all of Passloff’s pieces.  Her movement vocabulary was clearly influenced by ballet, but a ballet language stripped down to its basics, made all her own.

In “Yo (I Am)” from 2018, Hendrickson, who inhabited Passloff’s works with authority and graceful ease, moved smoothly about to Schultz’s interpretation of Brahms’ “Fantasias,” in movements that had whiffs of Isadora Duncan in their simplicity and musicality.

Charlotte Hendrickson in a scene from Aileen Passloff’s “In the Window” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Hendrickson also soloed in “In the Window” (2018) to music by the iconoclast John Cage.  His “Suite for Toy Piano” was, indeed, played on an actual toy piano with relish and wit by pianist Schultz whose rangy body, bent over the tiny instrument, was a sight in itself.  Passloff’s choreography—glides, soft ballet poses and quiet turns—caught the childlike plunkety-plunk of the accompaniment.

Hendrickson, dressed in flowing red topped by a folksy vest designed by Waring also danced Passloff’s three-part “He Dreams of Small Battles” to Bela Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances” played by Schultz.  The first two sections had hints of ethnic dance steps, but the third, called “Heaven,” had Hendrickson, now stripped down to a white dress in a more ruminative mood.

Chelsea Ainsworth and Louise Benkelman (both of the Bang Group company) danced Passloff’s “Nocturne for Bob” (2002), to a Chopin Nocturne liltingly played by Michael Scales.  The two mirrored each other for a while, separating into their own solos, moving upstage and down like ghosts drawn to each other’s gentle gravities.

Passloff made her 92nd Street Y debut as a 13-year old in 1944 dancing in James Waring’s troupe, so her inclusion of his solo piece “Octandre” (1958), to Edgar Varese’s work of the same name, was an appropriate way to honor his memory.  Reconstructed by Passloff, who was the original performer, for the agile Nic Petry of the Bang Group (which recently revived its seasonal Nut/Cracked at the Flea), the steps were rooted in the somber score.

Nic Petry in a scene from James Waring’s “Octantre” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Remy Charlip was represented by “April and December” from 1964, choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s lush “The Seasons.”  The simple steps, performed by Hendrickson seemed disassociated from the complex music which gave the work a subtle tension.

Musical interludes were performed by Schultz who, along with Cherry and Scales, also provided expert, supportive piano accompaniment for all the pieces.

The cover of the program contained a dreamy photograph of a young Passloff, dressed in diaphanous white, seemingly floating in place, her back angled slightly backward with one foot stepping forward, one foot in front of the other.

Aileen Passloff, Stepping Forward: One Foot (in front of the other) (January 11-13, 2019)

Dig Dance Series

92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (339 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

1 Comment on Aileen Passloff, Stepping Forward: One Foot (in front of the other)

  1. Avatar Marina Passloff // January 18, 2019 at 10:19 am // Reply

    Thank you so much for this wonderful synopsis of the program I was looking forward to. I would have loved
    To have seen it but I was quite ill and still am! Bad timing. My voice is not back yet but I will call soon I
    Hope! Congratulations on this exciting occasion!
    Love, Marina

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