Passing the Torch: Michael Novak with Susan Yung
Modern dance choreographers have been planning for their legacies in various ways. Some have chosen to disband their companies; others have, at times with the help of their boards, chosen successors. Michael Novak, a distinguished dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company since 2010, was recently named Artistic Director Designate of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation. I sat down with him at the Foundatoin headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Susan Yung (Rail): Were you surprised when Paul Taylor chose you to be Artistic Director Designate?
Michael Novak: I was surprised when Paul told me he had been thinking about this and he had made up his mind that it was going to be me. I was unaware that he was actively looking at creating a position. It’s a huge honor, and the magnitude of it was something that really touched me emotionally, but also artistically—as an artist he’s entrusting me to protect his work.
Rail: And you had no idea?
Novak: None. At all. [Laughs]
Rail: What do you think was the most important thing that convinced Paul to turn to you?
Novak: Paul likes to observe people. He often “throws you a bone” as we call it. He doesn’t necessarily tell you how to move forward, he just gives you the opportunity and he watches you confront the challenge and sees what you bring. But I’m also kind of an introvert; I like to watch things before I go into something. So maybe he saw that in me. I tend to look before I leap, which isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes you want to have the courage to go into the unknown, and that’s something he’s really given me the opportunity to test.
Rail: As you don’t officially start your new position until July, what are your added responsibilities now, besides doing interviews like this?
Novak: I’m doing a lot of homework in terms of the history of the institution. Paul has asked me to start to learn the artistic planning and programming of the whole company. I’m having orientation meetings throughout the whole foundation to learn what other people do and how they do it, how I might be able to help them with Paul in this transition. When I start on July 1, I’ll have the resources to start to move forward. Building context is probably the biggest thing.
Rail: So you’re responsible for the company, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance . . .
Novak: Basically, as Artistic Director Designate I will have to have an awareness of Paul Taylor Dance Company, Taylor 2, the Paul Taylor School, our archive, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance at Lincoln Center . . . I think that’s it.
So context is important, and how they all influence each other as a healthy ecosystem. How they need to collaborate and function. How are the students in the school learning Taylor at a young age? And how does that translate into high school and going into college, going into the summer intensives, Taylor 2, into the main company . . . it is all one giant system, so just figuring out the intricacies of that.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into dance?
Novak: I tried a number of sports when I was younger—baseball, basketball, gymnastics, tennis—and I wasn’t very good. We had just moved to Palatine, Illinois, and my parents insisted I have an activity to do after school. I thought, here’s this new dance studio near our house, why don’t I try some dance classes and see how it goes? I started doing jazz and tap and I fell in love. While I was dancing there three to four days a week, I was also doing musical theater at high school. It was a combination of dancing, theater, working backstage, and I fell in love with theater.
Once I graduated I decided to get my undergraduate degree in dance. That was at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I was there for a year and was offered an apprenticeship with the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet. I danced there, started to develop shin splints, and got stress fractures in both legs from ballet. I stopped dancing for a time. I moved to New York, trying to figure out what I was going to do. Was I going to keep dancing? Was I not? I just didn’t know what was in store for me and I had a bunch of random jobs, and I decided to go back and finish my undergraduate degree. I went to Columbia University, to the School of General Studies, for what they call “non-traditional students.” I was twenty-three when I started there and I finished my undergraduate degree at Columbia. I reconnected with dance and saw that I did love it, that I wasn’t done, and I found modern dance there as well, and that all led to Paul Taylor.
Rail: And you have an academic history in dance as well. What are your areas of interest?
Novak: When I was at Barnard, where the dance department was, most of my studies pertained to Russian and European ballet history and their influence on the birth of modern dance here, and the whole exchange between American dance and the European-centric dance scene. Most of my focus was on Balanchine, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, and modernism as it existed within the ballet world—how that notion of modernism also was happening in America at the same time in a slightly different context within the modern dance scene. At the same time, I also love dance photography. My senior thesis was on the photographer George Platt Lynes, who was a fashion photographer early on in his career, and whose work I love. He also was one of the major photographers of the New York City Ballet.
Rail: Can you discuss how you see Paul’s work in the larger context of dance history?
Novak: Something that I value tremendously about Paul Taylor’s canon is the range, and not just in terms of music. He is called the master of light and dark. You can create so many evenings of dance of his where you feel like you’re watching three different choreographers. Sure, there’s a basic system of movement that’s a thread between them, but the diversity in the palette is just astounding. And the humor—to do humor is actually really hard; it takes a lot of craft. To be authentic with a moment to such a degree that it can create comedy, and how Paul is able to create those moments where humor is a natural response from the audience, is something very valuable in the canon of modern dance.
Rail: When is the first time you danced a work by Paul Taylor? Did it have any special resonance?
Novak: Yes. The first dance of his I performed was his solo from Aureole, which he choreographed in 1962 and it was part of my senior performance project at Barnard College, and I was coached by Mary Cochran, an alumna of the company who recently passed away. Having done jazz, tap, and ballet I always felt like I loved all of them, but they didn’t quite fit with my physicality. When I started moving in the Taylor style, something clicked and I felt that it allowed me to be my most authentic self, and the solo in Aureole was great confirmation that this is how I was meant to move.
Rail: What are some of your favorite dances by him to watch? To dance?
Novak: I love watching Dust, it’s one of my favorites and I’ve never danced it. Promethean Fire—I actually never saw it before getting into the company, and he uses all sixteen dancers, so only when we expanded our company to eighteen was I able to step out and see it as a work. And the experience that you have when you’re in it is very different than when you’re watching—they’re both incredibly powerful and moving.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.