Michael Novak Prepares to Take the Reins at Paul Taylor
A quiet power has marked Michael Novak's dancing since he joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 2010. Long a critics' favorite, he has gracefully shared the spotlight with higher-profile performers, contributing steady excellence to works from Gossamer Gallants to the iconic Esplanade. But no one was more surprised than Novak when Taylor tapped him to be artistic director designate. Novak, 35, will oversee every component of the Paul Taylor enterprise, from the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance initiative to the school. But most critically, he will direct the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which may be his toughest role yet—one he has already begun training for.
We spoke to Novak earlier this summer, before the announcement of Novak's new role turned out to be portentous: Taylor passed away this week.
Why do you think he chose you? Did you have any hints—in hindsight?
I certainly didn't see it coming. I went over to his apartment for a quick meeting; I was there 15 minutes. He told me he'd been thinking about it for a very long time, that he had decided it would be me, that he trusted me, and that I would do a great job. He's not one for excessive compliments; I didn't need much more than "I trust you."
"We have to acknowledge that culture does change," says Novak. "It will affect how we present the Taylor canon. How do we take Paul's work and curate it in a way that will serve its audience?" Photo by Bill Wadman, Courtesy PTAMD
When Mr. Taylor makes a decision, that's what happens. A lot is communicated without words—not just a meeting of minds but a reading of minds. The joke we have in the company is that no news is good news.
Will you be involved in programming?
Yes, that's Mr. Taylor's primary goal for me going forward. I need to get a holistic sense of the canon, what's been in the vault, what's performed frequently, and also gain a thorough understanding of the market, and the temperature of what's happening in the dance world.
Do you think differently about audience reactions now?
There are many dances I've never seen because I've been in them. One of my goals in this transition is to watch the works from the house and watch the audience watching the works.
Michael Novak in Taylor's Concertiana. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTAMD
Will you continue to perform?
Mr. Taylor has asked me to. I need to find a balance where I can still produce an artistic product I feel is excellent while allocating substantial time to the homework I need to do.
You studied dance history at Columbia University. How has that helped you prepare for your new role?
The class that had the greatest impact on me was History of Russian Ballet. It was a course on how history influences art, a very holistic look at cultural politics, gender and heritage. How does the artist survive cultural shifts?
We have to acknowledge that culture does change. It will affect how we present the Taylor canon. How do we take Paul's work and curate it in a way that will serve its audience? Look at New York City Ballet and how they present Balanchine's legacy. Balanchine created a range of works that need to be coached differently, and I see a lot of analogies to Paul's work.
Novak with Heather McGinley in Taylor's Eventide. Photo by Whitney Browne, Courtesy PTAMD
Do you see the other dancers having a role in helping you maintain the Taylor legacy?
One of the things I value about my colleagues is how passionate they are about Paul's work. That loyalty I treasure dearly. I am starting my ninth season with the company, but in the Paul Taylor family you have people who've danced with him 20 years. There is so much knowledge that comes with that, and I want that in my arsenal. We sometimes say we're not a company but a pack. I need to keep that spirit alive long after Paul is no longer with us, and I need them to do that with me.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.