When the choreographer Aileen Passloff landed at Bennington College in 1949, she was an 18-year-old ballet dancer who had never worn a pair of jeans. She was surrounded by modern dancers. “They would say, ‘Revolve around your soul,’ and I would look at them and they didn’t look any different revolving around their souls than without revolving,” Ms. Passloff said in an interview at her apartment on the Upper West Side. “‘Get into your groin’ was another. These were puzzlements to me.”
Ms. Passloff, who eventually fell in love with modern dance, wasn’t entirely sheltered. She had a secret in her back pocket: The wisdom of the marvelously eccentric choreographer and artist James Waring (1922-75), whom she met at the School of American Ballet. Mr. Waring — she calls him Jimmy — was in the class above her but had no airs; one day he asked to examine her feet. She was mortified. “I was a very shy little girl from Queens,” she said. But she gave in.
In hindsight, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. Now 87, Ms. Passloff, who went on to be a member of the experimental collective Judson Dance Theater, will present a program of new works and one revival, as well as a reconstruction of Mr. Waring’s “Octandre” and Remy Charlip’s “April and December” at the 92nd Street Y on Friday and Sunday.
Raised in Jackson Heights, Ms. Passloff was, in her words, “part of the old gang” — a new generation of artists working downtown in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when choreographers were redefining dance. It was also a time when artists of different disciplines mingled. “Sculptors and painters came to watch class,” she said. “There was an interest in other people’s work whether you were a musician or whether you were a writer.”
Through Mr. Waring, she met a wealth of people in the dance world, including David Vaughan, Ruth Sobotka, David Gordon and his wife, the dancer Valda Setterfield — “Jimmy lost his heart to her,” Ms. Passloff said, the moment he saw her. In the audio tour of the exhibition “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” at the Museum of Modern Art, Ms. Passloff says that they weren’t allowed to pass a garbage can without searching it for treasures and passing them onto Mr. Waring.
“It was before it was dog poop time,” she said. “You’d find a piece of fur and bring it to Jimmy. Or just one glove. Or the tassel from a curtain. There was nothing without value and that was a big deal: to be looking at what other people considered garbage and to see how beautiful it was.”
Recently, Ms. Passloff spoke about her career — a mighty one that has spanned ballet, modern dance and postmodern dance — and the lessons she learned from Mr. Waring. For her, dancing is like breathing. “It’s how we show love,” she said.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your dancing debut, in 1944, was also at the 92nd Street Y?
When I was a girl, my teacher was Russian, so I would dance for the Russian war relief. I would dance in churches. I would dance anywhere they would have me. They’d give me a flower afterward, and I would be happy as a camper.
But the first sort of professional one was with Jimmy’s company at the 92nd Street Y, and I was 13. He was doing a ballet about a circus family, and I was a clown.
Why did you start studying ballet?
I always danced. I would be set out in the backyard to play and to play was to dance.
How did you enroll at the School of American Ballet?
I loved to jump and I could jump high and I had a good ear. I heard the music. But I hadn’t a clue and I remember I didn’t have tights. I wore black velvet skating shorts and on top, I had a tennis shirt that had buttons in the crotch and was much too big for me. Somehow she did take me. I was strong and tireless and full of passion and loved dancing as deeply as one could ever love anything.
Which other teachers did you love?
[Anatole] Oboukhov — he screamed in that big voice that came from under his shoes. He was passionate. He taught me how to fly. He didn’t talk. He grunted at things. But I got to understand about our wings [She touches her mid-back] and that ability to fly. To go past everything.
To move big?
It was to transcend the whole thing. I studied with his wife, Vera Nemtchinova, who was out of the Diaghilev company. She would tell me about watching Nijinsky. She would stand in the wings and say, “Vaslav, how you do that?” And he would say, “By the ears.” [She pulls the tips of her ears up.] I never forgot it.
What can you say about your new dances?
They’re a mix of things. I feel a little embarrassed how good a time I’ve had. They could put me in jail for too good a time. The last thing I finished is a duet for two men. One is a man I adore who I’ve worked with for years, Arthur Aviles, and the other is a new guy, Andy Chapman. I got interested in their differences but there’s something similar about them. I just was playing. I’ve been looking a lot at birds and thinking about how they fly and those joints. So the end of the piece, they become birds and I dress them that way.
Did you get to attend many ballet performances when you were younger?
I didn’t have much money, and neither did Jimmy. So Jimmy taught me how to climb up the fire escape at City Center. You got directly in the theater that way, and you took a seat. There was an alleyway, and in those days when you went to the ballet you had stockings and heels, and it was lady time. With the heels, it was a little bit iffy, but not that iffy. This way, you got to see the whole thing.
And you spent time together outside the studio?
We’d hang out in the Automat on 57th Street. Once Jimmy said, “I’ll bring you some Jell-O,” and I said, “I don’t like Jell-O.” He said, “Why don’t you like Jell-O?” I said, “Because it shakes.” So of course Jimmy brought me Jell-O. He said, “That’s prejudice. It’s like saying you don’t like red or yellow or blue.”
What else did he teach you?
That there was nothing that wasn’t important. Jimmy was always sewing. He would be taking this little piece of gauze here that had a little pearl inside of it and put a little sequin over it and then he was going to put it under the third petticoat that somebody was wearing. I said, “But Jimmy nobody’s going to see that.” He said, “But they’ll feel it.” And he was absolutely right.