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.