Dancemaker Paul Taylor, one of the seminal artists of the 20th and 21st Centuries, continues to shape the homegrown American art of modern dance that he has helped define since he became a professional dancer and pioneering choreographer in 1954. After 60 years as Artistic Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, he blazed a new trail in 2014 by establishing
an institutional home for the art form: Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Mr. Taylor is curating and presenting great modern dances of the past and present alongside his own works at Lincoln Center and other preeminent venues throughout the world, and commissioning a new generation of choreographers to make dances on his own Company so that modern dance flourishes long into the future. At an age when most artists’ best work is behind them, Mr. Taylor continues to win public and critical acclaim for the vibrancy, relevance and power of his dances. He offers cogent observations on life’s complexities while tackling some of society’s thorniest issues. While he may propel his dancers through space for the sheer beauty of it, he more frequently uses them to illuminate such profound issues as war, piety, spirituality, sexuality, morality and mortality. If, as George Balanchine said, there are no mothers-in-law in ballet, there certainly are dysfunctional families, disillusioned idealists, imperfect religious leaders, angels and insects in Mr. Taylor’s dances.
Paul Taylor was born on July 29, 1930 – exactly nine months after the stock market crash that led into the Great Depression – and grew up in and around Washington, DC. He attended Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship in the late 1940s until he discovered dance through books at the University library, and then transferred to The Juilliard School. In 1954 he assembled a small company of dancers and began to choreograph. A commanding performer despite his late start in dance, he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1955 for the first of seven seasons as soloist while continuing to choreograph on his own troupe. In 1959 he was invited to be a guest artist with New York City Ballet, where Balanchine created the Episodes solo for him.
Mr. Taylor has made 146 dances since 1954, many of which have attained iconic status. He has covered a breathtaking range of topics, but recurring themes include life and death; the natural world and man’s place within it; love and sexuality in all gender combinations; and iconic moments in American history. His poignant looks at soldiers, those who send them into battle, and those they leave behind prompted The New York Times to hail him as “among the great war poets” – high praise indeed for an artist in a wordless medium. While some of his dances have been termed “dark” and others “light,” the majority of his works are dualistic, mixing elements of both extremes. And while his work has largely been iconoclastic, he has also made some of the most purely romantic, most astonishingly athletic, and downright funniest dances ever put on stage.
Mr. Taylor first gained notoriety as a dance maker in 1957 with Seven New Dances; its study in non-movement famously earned it a blank newspaper review, and Graham subsequently dubbed him the “naughty boy” of dance. In 1962, with his first major success – the sunny Aureole – he set his trailblazing modern movement not to a contemporary score but to music composed 200 years earlier, and then went to the opposite extreme a year later with a view of purgatory in Scudorama. He inflamed the establishment in 1965 by lampooning some of America’s most treasured icons in From Sea To Shining Sea, and created more controversy in 1970 by putting incest center stage in Big Bertha. After retiring as a performer in 1974, he created an instant classic, the exuberant Esplanade (1975), which remains his signature work. In Cloven Kingdom (1976) he examined the primitive nature that lurks just below man’s veneer of sophistication and gentility. He looked at intimacy among men at war in 1983 – long before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became official policy – in Sunset; pictured Armageddon in Last Look (1985); and peered unflinchingly at religious hypocrisy and marital rape in Speaking In Tongues (1988). In Company B (1991) he used popular songs of the Andrews Sisters to juxtapose the high spirits of Americans during the 1940s with the sacrifices so many of them made during World War II. In The Word (1998), he railed against religious zealotry and blind conformity to authority. In the first decade of the new millennium he x American imperialism in Banquet of Vultures, poked fun at feminism in Dream Girls and stared death square in the face in the Walt Whitman-inspired Beloved Renegade. Brief Encounters (2009) and The Uncommitted (2011) each examined the inability of many men and women in contemporary society to form meaningful, lasting relationships.
Hailed for uncommon musicality and catholic taste, Mr. Taylor has set movement to music so memorably that for many people it is impossible to hear certain orchestral works and popular songs and not think of his dances. He has set works to an eclectic mix that includes Medieval masses, Renaissance dances, baroque concertos, classical symphonies, and scores by Debussy, Cage, Feldman, Ligeti and Pärt; Ragtime, Tango, Tin Pan Alley, Barbershop Quartets and The Mamas and The Papas; and telephone time announcements, loon calls, and laughter.
Mr. Taylor has influenced dozens of men and women who have gone on to choreograph – many on their own troupes – and many others have gone on to become respected teachers at colleges and universities. And he has worked closely with such outstanding artists as James F. Ingalls, Jasper Johns, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, William Ivey Long, Santo Loquasto, Gene Moore, Tharon Musser, Robert Rauschenberg, John Rawlings, Thomas Skelton and Jennifer Tipton.
As the subject of Matthew Diamond’s documentary, Dancemaker, and author of the autobiography Private Domain and Wall Street Journal essay Why I Make Dances, Mr. Taylor has shed light on the mysteries of the creative process as few artists have. Dancemaker, which received an Oscar nomination, was hailed by Time as “perhaps the best dance documentary ever.” His autobiography, Private Domain, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf and re-released by North Point Press and later by the University of Pittsburgh Press, was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as the most distinguished biography of 1987. A documentary on the making of Three Dubious Memories, entitled Creative Domain, has been made, and a new collection of his essays, Facts and Fancies, was published in February 2013.
Mr. Taylor has received nearly every important honor given to artists in the United States. In 1992 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and received an Emmy Award for Speaking in Tongues, produced by WNET/New York the previous year. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1993. In 1995 he received the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts and was named one of 50 prominent Americans honored in recognition of their outstanding achievement by the Library of Congress’s Office of Scholarly Programs. He is the recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships and honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from California Institute of the Arts, Connecticut College, Duke University, The Juilliard School, Skidmore College, the State University of New York at Purchase, Syracuse University and Adelphi University. Awards for lifetime achievement include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship – often called the “genius award” – and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. Other awards include the New York State Governor’s Arts Award and the New York City Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture. In 1989 Mr. Taylor was elected one of ten honorary members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Having been elected to knighthood by the French government as Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1969 and elevated to Officier in 1984 and Commandeur in 1990, Mr. Taylor was awarded France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur, in 2000 for exceptional contributions to French culture.
Mr. Taylor’s dances are performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the six-member Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company (begun in 1993), and companies throughout the world including the Royal Danish Ballet, Rambert Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He remains among the most sought-after choreographers working today, commissioned by presenting organizations the world over.
Continuing to embrace new challenges, in 2012 Mr. Taylor moved the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s performances to a new home at Lincoln Center, where it has attracted larger audiences than ever before. And in 2014 he established Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Noted dance writer Robert Johnson applauded the creation of the new initiative, writing, “Any serious effort to preserve our fragile dance inheritance deserves a rousing ‘Hosanna!’ and ‘Amen!’”
Michael Novak is the Artistic Director Designate of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation. He was appointed by company founder Paul Taylor, who said: “Over the past decade, Michael has mastered our repertory and steeped himself in dance history. He understands the need to nurture the past, present and future of modern dance. I look forward to
working with him and preparing him to assume artistic leadership of my company.”
Mr. Novak has been a dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company since 2010. His performing debut, during the company’s 2010/11 season, earned him a nomination for the Clive Barnes Foundation Dance Award.
Raised in Rolling Meadows, IL, Mr. Novak began studying dance at age ten. At age 12, he developed a severe speech impediment requiring intensive therapy. Dance became a liberating and vital force for self-expression. “I wanted nothing more than to achieve in dancing that sense of effortlessness and grace that were so difficult for me to find while speaking aloud. With dancing, there were no limits to what I could express.”
In 2001, Mr. Novak was offered a Presidential Scholarship to attend The University of the Arts in Philadelphia to pursue training in jazz and ballet. The following year, he undertook an apprenticeship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet Society, where he remained until 2004.
After moving to New York City, Mr. Novak was admitted to Columbia University’s School of General Studies where he was awarded scholarships for academic excellence. He became a member of the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, the university’s critically acclaimed resident company, and was named Artistic Associate responsible for advising on the curation of resident choreographers and for directing the group’s branding and promotion.
At Columbia, Mr. Novak became immersed in the study of dance history, which ignited his passionate devotion to modern dance. He developed a keen interest in the work of François Delsarte, the 19th century French movement theorist who codified the system linking emotion and gesture that would inspire the first generation of American modern dancers. Mr. Novak undertook a multi-year training program to study and master the subtleties of the Delsarte Method.
His love of dance history also led him to Vaslav Nijinsky, the Ballets Russes dancer who radically reimagined ballet choreography and movement in such works as L’Après-midi d’un faune and Le Sacre du printemps. (Mr. Novak’s fascination with Nijinsky is shared by Paul Taylor.) In a 2009 program celebrating Diaghilev at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, Mr. Novak embodied Nijinsky’s role in L’Après-midi d’un faune with an authenticity that brought him to the attention of dance critics and scholars.
The encounter with Nijinsky coincided with the beginnings of Mr. Novak’s deep exploration of the Taylor repertory, including his performance at Columbia of a solo originated by Paul Taylor in Aureole. Enthralled with the experience of performing Taylor’s masterpiece, Mr. Novak embarked on studies at the Taylor School while still at Columbia.
In 2008, Mr. Novak graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. His senior thesis on the dance photography of George Platt Lynes was accepted with honors.
Mr. Novak has performed works by Bill T. Jones and Stephen Petronio and danced with Gibney Dance and the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company. He has also studied at Springboard Danse Montreal under Alexandra Wells and Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.
In 2010, Paul Taylor invited Mr. Novak to join The Paul Taylor Dance Company.
“Mr. Taylor helped me decide what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” says Mr. Novak. “What I have loved most about my job is being the member of a company where the repertoire is so vast and so varied. And we’re very fortunate that such a large number of Taylor works are iconic. I have found that these masterpieces reward a thousandfold the time you spend digging into them.”
“I am so honored and humbled that Mr. Taylor has elected to guide me toward the future artistic direction of his company. And I’m thrilled by his willingness to share his experience in leadership and vast knowledge of modern dance. It is an extraordinarily generous gift.”