The choreographer Paul Taylor has finally made a decision — he has named Michael Novak as his successor.
Mr. Novak, a much-admired member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, is to be the artistic director-designate of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation beginning July 1, the Taylor organization announced on Friday.
Mr. Taylor, 87, one of the world’s pre-eminent choreographers — he is still making dances — will continue in his role as the foundation’s artistic director until he chooses to stop working.
Mr. Novak, 35, who has been a member of the company only since 2010, may seem like a surprising choice. But for Mr. Taylor it was an easy one. “I thought he was just next in line,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve watched him for some time. He pays attention, and I know that he’s listening. I like him very much, and I think he’ll be great.”
For Mr. Novak, the appointment came out of nowhere. Just after the company’s Lincoln Center season ended in March, he went to Mr. Taylor’s apartment for a meeting. “Paul said, ‘I have been thinking a long time and I have decided that you’re going to be the one to take over the company once I buzz off,’” Mr. Novak said. “I don’t think ‘shocked’ even begins to describe the feeling.”
It will be a formidable undertaking. Mr. Novak, who will continue to dance but said he had no plans to choreograph himself, will be the artistic leader for all the groups that fall under the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation’s umbrella: the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Paul Taylor American Modern Dance — which presents new works by outside choreographers as well as Taylor masterworks at Lincoln Center — and also Taylor 2, the Taylor archives and the Taylor School.
For years, Mr. Taylor was not willing to name a successor. John Tomlinson, the executive director of the Taylor foundation, said, “When we would talk about this, Paul would say, ‘I’m not going to deal with this, it’s not my problem, I’m going to leave the decision for other people.’”
Mr. Tomlinson said that Mr. Taylor had told him he had designated an artistic committee in his will that would determine the organization’s future. “When you tell that to a major foundation, it sort of deflates the conversation,” Mr. Tomlinson said. Naming a successor, he added, “is like a shot of adrenaline.”
Yet when Mr. Taylor told him of his plan to appoint Mr. Novak, Mr. Tomlinson was caught off guard.
“Michael’s name never even crossed my mind,” he said. “But suddenly it made perfect sense: He’s intelligent, he’s totally inquisitive, he’s totally invested in modern dance and in what Paul Taylor does. He’s a brilliant performer and he’s an inquiring mind.”
Mr. Taylor spoke about showing Mr. Novak the ropes. “He wants me to start working on artistic planning and programming first,” said Mr. Novak, adding that he would attend administrative meetings too. “I expect to do a lot of listening and a lot of note taking.”
Mr. Taylor said that when Mr. Novak is understudying a dance, he will have Mr. Novak sit next to him in the studio to hear his comments. Beyond that, specific training plans are hard to nail down. “I’ve warned Michael about this,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “I said, ‘Be careful — if you’re expecting Paul to sit down with you and start talking you through all this, you may be disappointed.’ ”
Mr. Novak also plans on spending time in the Taylor archives, going back to 1954 when the company was formed. “I want to get a sense of how he and his work have evolved,” Mr. Novak said. “You’re looking at seven decades of culture, too. The fact that dances that were made that long ago still are profound and true and can still seem relevant and poignant and make people cry — the timelessness of it is shocking to me.”
Mr. Novak didn’t start out loving or even knowing much about modern dance. He began his training at around 10 at a competition school in Palatine, Ill., that focused on jazz, tap and hip-hop. During middle school he developed a severe stutter, known as a block. “You can’t get the word out,” he said. “Trying to fight to talk and not being able to — dance became a way for me to just let it out.”
While attending the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he realized that his ballet technique wasn’t up to par and withdrew to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet to learn the foundations of technique. “In doing that, I got injured,” he said. “I started to develop shin splints right away, and then I ended up getting stress fractures in both shins. Every day was excruciating.”
At 23, Mr. Novak applied to the School of General Studies of Columbia University, a haven for dancers. While there, he joined the newly formed Columbia Ballet Collaborative, a student-run group featuring dancers from all of the undergraduate colleges and affiliates.
At the same time, he fell in love with the dance program at Barnard, with its emphasis on dance history. Mary Cochran, a former Taylor dancer and then department chair, and Mindy Aloff, a professor, were the first to plant the Taylor seed.
“Mindy was like, ‘You know, I think you should consider Paul Taylor,’” Mr. Novak recalled. “Mary said, ‘Oh, my God, Paul would love you.’ I started taking classes at the Taylor school immediately after.”
Dancers and administrative staff learned about Mr. Novak’s appointment on Thursday. Heather McGinley, a Taylor dancer, called the choice “spectacular.” She added, “I would say it was completely shocking and not a surprise — all at the same time. It was completely unexpected, but it seemed perfect. I feel like the company is in really good hands with him.”
Mr. Novak said he realized the magnitude and the responsibility of his new role. “I’m very touched and humbled that he has spent an entire lifetime pushing the art form forward and creating this amazing language and repertory,” he said. “That he’s entrusting me to take care of it makes me very emotional.”
That wasn’t lost on Mr. Taylor who, with a certain dry delight, recounted Mr. Novak’s reaction the day he announced the news.
“I can see his mouth gape,” he said. “He just sort of staggered out. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, please not that.’ He didn’t have a choice.”
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