Richardson — It has been six months since the passing of American modern dance pioneer Paul Taylor, but the loss still sits heavy for many who have had some kind of connection to the iconic dance maker, whether it be through books, documentaries, dance classes, lectures, performances, or, for me, speaking to him on the phone for an article. These Taylor encounters are the reason why Paul Taylor Dance Company’s (PTDC) new Artistic Director Michael Novak has decided not to dance with the company at its performance at the Charles W. Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, on Feb. 9.
“I am not dancing in Richardson because it’s important for me to be out in the house to mingle with a lot of the residents there,” Novak says. “It actually has been a really powerful experience to meet people especially as part of Paul’s passing away. There are a lot of people who come to me to introduce themselves and they almost always have some kind of relationship to Paul and it’s important that I hear those stories from different people and let them feel heard. I think Richardson is a great place to engage with people in that particular way and I am looking forward to doing that.”
Engaging with the audience is something Taylor requested that Novak do, along with continuing to dance with the company. “When I had met with Paul he had specifically requested that I keep on dancing. Obviously it meant that I had to refocus how often I was actually going to be dancing because one of the things that Paul also wanted me to do is not only be on stage performing as an artist. He also felt that it would be important for me to be out in the actual house meeting with audience members.”
Novak adds, “It’s a balance that is new for me and one I am having a fun time figuring out.”
As far as what has been the most challenging part of his new job position Novak says, “taking a step back and looking at how much Paul Taylor actually did in his career and how do you celebrate that in a way that gives people who know his work so well an opportunity to be reminded of how great it was and gives them this massive overview. But also how do you do it in a way that entices new audiences to come in and to use this opportunity to really celebrate the company in a way that takes us forward?”
Originally from Illinois, Novak started dancing at the age of 10. In 2001, he was offered a Presidential Scholarship to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the following year he became an apprentice at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet Society. After an injury caused him to take some time off from dance, Novak decided to go back to school. He attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies where he was awarded scholarships for academic excellence. It was at Columbia where he became interested in the study of dance history, which ignited his passion for modern dance.
Novak started dancing at the Taylor School in 2007 and was asked to join the company in 2010. Since then he has danced 56 roles in 50 Taylor dances, 13 of which were made for him, including Three Dubious Memories (2010), which happens to be the focus of the Paul Taylor documentary “Creative Domain,” which will be shown at the Eisemann on Thursday following master classes with company members Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney.
On Saturday the company will perform four iconic works by Taylor: Aureole (1962), Three Epitaphs (1956), Piazzolla Caldera (1997) and Promethean Fire (2002).
In our discussion about these choices Novak says, “Aureole really established him as one of the emerging choreographers of the mid-20th century. It was also the first time in Paul’s career that he explored this notion of not only the Baroque music, but also this very fluid, beautiful and simple approach to dance making.”
He goes on to say that Three Epitaphs is well known for its costumes, which keep the dancers’ faces covered, and describes Piazzolla Caldera as a steamy, gritty and energizing tango piece that doesn’t have a single tango step in it. The final work of the night is Promethean Fire, which Novak says many audiences have associated with the events of 9/11 and centers around this idea of a community of people overcoming obstacles in order to maintain hope and move forward.
Looking back on his time working with Taylor, Novak says his experience was incredibly positive. He admits that in the beginning all he wanted was for Taylor to enjoy his dancing, but says that over time it became more about reading his mind and his physicality. “As a dancer who worked for him you were often waiting on him to tell you what to do or to give you an idea of what he was looking for and you tend to not respond verbally, but you tend to respond physically.”
“The relationship is built on trust and it’s based on this intuitive understanding of where the other person is at and trying to make art. So, over the course of my eight years, I got to know him very well in the sense of being able to read his mind a little bit and figuring out how best we could collaborate.”
The trust that Novak speaks about also played a major role in his appointment by Taylor as the next artist director of PTDC. “When Paul invited me over for a meeting where he told me that he wanted me to take over his company he said that he trusted me, and that was a huge moment for me because Paul was not a man of many words. Usually if he liked what you were doing he wouldn’t say anything. So when he would give a compliment or say something was beautiful it usually meant that it was almost transcendent.”
He continues, “So when he said that he trusted me it was very touching and probably the most profound thing he could ever say to any of his artists and to me in particular. It has also given me a great deal of confidence to know that he believed in me and what I bring.”
This confidence has also helped as Novak preps for the company’s future. His plan includes building off what Taylor started five years ago when he created Paul Taylor American Modern Dance at Lincoln Center. “It’s this three pillar approach to presenting modern dance that wasn’t just Paul Tayor and his repertory. It also included historic modern dance works from the entire cannon. Coupled with that are the contemporary choreographers that we bring in to work on the Paul Taylor Dance Company.”
Novak adds, “I am incredibly passionate about those three aspects and figuring out after we have this celebration dance maker tour how we can continue that going forward. I am determined to do both in the sense that there are important modern dance historical works that haven’t been seen in a long time both within the Taylor cannon and modern dance that I would love bring back and share with audiences. But I also believe in curating new artists to come in and make work. We really have to do both.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com