The next generation of artistic leadership takes its place at Paul Taylor Dance Company

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GREAT BARRINGTON — When Paul Taylor Dance Company member Michael Novak takes the stage during the group's annual visit to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center this weekend, he'll appear in "Gossamer Gallants" and "Concertiana," Taylor works he's danced before.

While there'll therefore be no performance debuts for Novak, a couple of days ago he made his first appearance in an entirely different kind of role: On July 1 he officially began his brand-new position as Artistic Director Designate for the Taylor company. Although, as Novak told me, the 87-year-old Taylor has "assured everyone he's going to live forever," the mere fact of the appointment is momentous. Taylor is the last surviving member of his generation of early U.S. modern dance pioneers, many of whom, like him, created and led eponymous companies that themselves became legendary. What happens to these iconic choreographers' works and their troupes after they've passed on has become much-discussed, argued, and fretted-over. It's a question of legacy. By naming his own successor, Taylor introduces an interesting new pathway for the future of "brand name" cultural institutions. Taylor has been planning ahead in other ways too; several years ago he began including the masterworks of other iconic dancemakers on his programs, and also started commissioning new works by a younger generation of choreographers.

A company member since 2010, the 35-year-old Novak currently has no plans to choreograph. "Never say never, but I think I see this role more as a curator than a choreographer," he told me in mid-June. "It feels like it's in my best interest to focus on Paul's legacy, frankly, and getting the foundation through this transition before I would even consider anything of that kind. There's just so much to do, and so much to learn."

We spoke over the phone in mid-June while Novak and the company were in Chile as part of a South American tour. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.

Q: Congratulations! This is just huge. In a May New York Times article you expressed `shock." Are you still shocked?

A: I am shocked It's exciting and it's a reality check and it's a perspective shift. I'm really excited to get back home and really start doing the work. One of my goals that I have is to start seeing as much work as I possibly can. I've had to be very focused on my artistry and because of that kind of hyper focus I haven't actually been able to see a lot of [other] dance. I'm looking forward to getting a wholistic sense of where the modern dance field is.

Q: Is there a specific timeline for when you will fully take charge?

A: The plan is that Mr. Taylor will continue to lead and direct the company as long as he wants to.

Q: What about your own dancing, both during this training process with Mr. Taylor, and once you do take the reins? You seem to have many more stage years left in you.

A: Well, Mr. Taylor has asked me to continue dancing, and that is something that I am excited to keep on doing but if we get to a point where my attention should be shifted more towards the artistic directorship of the company then that's a conversation that I'll have to have with Paul Taylor. But as of right now I'm pretty determined to juggle both.

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Q: Ae you being inundated with advice? And do you welcome the advice at this point, or is it nerve-wracking?

A: I love advice. There are people who aren't necessarily offering advice but are saying `if you come to a time when you need counsel, I will be here for you,' and that means a great deal to me. Artists who have transitioned into management understand that there is a perspective shift that has to happen and it's a process. I'm so used to being backstage I am IN the dances, so I don't actually know what it's like to watch the repertory from the outside.

Q: In his comments regarding why he selected you, Mr. Taylor has said that you listen. What does the `listening' mean to you?

A: I learn a lot from watching and from taking stock from my surroundings. I tend to sit back and watch and listen and then act. Sometimes it's not a good thing, sometimes Mr. Taylor will say "Stop thinking! Just do it!" But Mr. Taylor's often very quiet, he likes to watch you, so I like to watch him watch me. (Laughter.) The things that make him laugh, that keep him ticking knowing what he's looking for and what he's feeling, when he's inspired and when he thinks something should be different it's a very subconscious thing that you develop when you work with someone for this long. Even with my colleagues; when someone is running toward you and they just leap into the air, there is that trust that no matter what is happening, you will find a way to catch them. That is all the listening; it's a very unique gift to be given, to be able to work in that way.

Q: What are other qualities that you think will help you in this role?

A: I think one of the skill sets I have is my knowledge of dance history, and I believe that a great way to building a plan for the future is to understand and reflect on where you've come from and then adapt so you can move forward. Paul Taylor has managed to run a successful company for 64 years and there's a lot of knowledge there and I'm very determined to absorb as much of that as I can. It's one thing to manage a group of people, it's another thing to manage the idea of preserving legacy and the responsibility of that is something that I take very seriously. Not just Mr. Taylor's legacy, but a lot of the historical modern dance works and the choreographers that were his contemporaries when he was younger; to have a knowledge of their work, and their art form, and what they did, and why they did it. It's an incredible honor to kind of curate that and to try to contextualize it for 21st century audiences.

Q: What are some of the things that excite you about the dance world today?

A: A number of institutions are creating choreographic labs for dancers and this huge initiative that is happening across the field is amazing, As a millennial, I'm aware that the way that people of my generation think about art and relate to art and engage with it is different from the generations prior. Do I necessarily know how that translates into where the company is going? No, I don't, but it's there and it's noteworthy. There's a lot of push right now to create new work and to collaborate and I think that momentum is incredibly important and I hope that the field at large can capitalize on that cultural support to make art.

Q: What do you love about this company?

A: I love that the dancers are not afraid to look in each other's eyes with sincerity and honesty and innocence. It's so precious to me that, as dynamic and virtuosic and as athletic as they are, they take the time to actually see each other. For me, that's the spirit of the Paul Taylor work, that human connection, those moments of intimacy. It's what makes us people, and that for me is one of the most special things about the repertory and these dancers.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com


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