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Advice for Running the Paul Taylor Company? ‘Keep Them Laughing’

When Paul Taylor asked Michael Novak to take over his organization after he buzzed off — that was the way Taylor put it — both knew what a challenge the job would be.

Taylor, who died a little over a year ago, formed his company in 1954 and is regarded as one of the most important choreographers in modern dance. Mr. Novak, a dancer in his company, was something of a surprise pick, but Taylor was confident in his choice.

Now Mr. Novak, 37, is presiding over his first season of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance at Lincoln Center. That means he has a hand in deciding not just the repertory, but also the casting, the gala menu, the tablescapes and the posters hanging outside the David H. Koch Theater, where the company is in residence.

But Mr. Novak doesn’t just consider the details, small and large. “The big thing in my brain right now is how do you balance heritage and new?” Mr. Novak said. “Ready-to-wear and couture?”

The season features new and recent works by the contemporary choreographers Kyle Abraham, Margie Gillis and Pam Tanowitz, along with Taylor classics, including an evening of collaborations between him and the visual artist Alex Katz — Mr. Novak’s idea. As an artistic director anxious to pull in new audiences, Mr. Novak is thinking about the dances, of course, but also about creating an experience around them.

“It’s what comes before and what comes after,” he said. “It’s how you package the evening for someone. There can be parties, backstage tours, meet and greets with the dancers — things that make it a real experience. Not that seeing a show isn’t a real experience, but I think people are looking for that next thing.”

Wouldn’t Taylor hate that kind of approach? Mr. Novak laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Paul was a renegade. He was always trying to push boundaries and push people a little bit so I think he would respect it like” — he imitated his mentor’s shrug — “see if it works.”

And in the end, their goal is the same: “It’s all about the art form,” Mr. Novak said. “And letting people connect with the power of dance, and letting it change and inspire and challenge them.”

To prepare for this season and the future, Mr. Novak has spent a good deal of time in the organization’s archives. One of his aims is to bring back Taylor’s early works. “There is a side of Paul that is radical and modern — he was pushing boundaries,” Mr. Novak said. “I don’t want people to forget that side of his artistry.”

The Lincoln Center season, which runs through Nov. 17, includes some older gems like “Scudorama” (1963), “Private Domain” (1969) and a revival of “Post Meridian” (1965) — it hasn’t been seen since 1989 and features costumes by Mr. Katz. The season will also see the final performances of the company stalwarts Michelle Fleet, Parisa Khobdeh and Jamie Rae Walker. (Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney will step down later this year.)

And there are other changes in store: In June, the company will present the inaugural program of the TaylorNEXT series, showcasing a selection of Taylor’s early experimental works at the more intimate Joyce Theater. By then, a new generation of dancers will be in place: Mr. Novak has hired seven since he took over, two men as recently as this month.

In a recent interview Mr. Novak spoke about his plans for the season and beyond, as well as his final conversations with Taylor. His lasting (and last) advice? Keep them laughing.

What follows are edited excerpts.

Why are you so interested in Paul’s early works?

I feel like Paul was really exploring his choreographic style. You see echoes of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. I was really interested in works that you saw that maturation happening. That inspired me to bring back “Post Meridian.” [The former Taylor dancer] Carolyn Adams called it moving Cubism. It’s this really spare use of movement and sound and pattern.

Was there anything that Paul wanted revived?

“Brief Encounters” — that was actually a request. I gave him a list of ideas and asked: “Can we bring this back? What do you think of this?” He definitely wanted “Diggity” to come back.

For that one, Katz created free-standing cutouts of dogs. Why did he ask for it?

Paul was very big on having diverse moods throughout an evening. My initial proposal didn’t have enough fun in it. [Laughs] Paul wanted funny. He was really big on the importance of humor.

He didn’t want that to disappear?

No. And it’s valuable for the artists — to do pieces that make you laugh and have fun is good for morale. And he did not want the same composer on every night. Design he wasn’t as specific about.

There’s going to be a Donald McKayle night, and I had brought the idea to him to do a tribute, because I loved “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” and I was like, “We have to do more, we’re in a position to do more. Could we turn that into an evening?” Paul said, “Give it a try. See what you can do.” [Laughs]

What else did you talk about?

He wanted me to be onstage and he wanted me to be in the house watching as much as I could.

But can you keep up dancing?

I can’t, I can’t. My last performance is on Nov. 5. I’m dancing “Beloved Renegade.”

Why did he want you to keep performing?

I’d like to think he liked my dancing, but he knew the weight of responsibility that comes with an artistic directorship. I think he wanted to make sure that the transition was a transition and that I didn’t give up my performing career when I was not ready to actually say goodbye to it. I’m guessing. I never really brought it up again because I didn’t think he was going to pass away as fast as he did. And then he passed away and I ended taking six months off [performing] because there was so much to manage with everything.

Who are you trying to reach as an artistic director?

I’m trying to reach younger audiences and the larger dance community in the sense of — Paul was a renegade, he was a rebel. There was this side of him that was unique and special that doesn’t get as much attention as I would like. I also want to expand our audience’s palate for Paul.

What are some older dances you’ll show at the Joyce?

“Fibers,” which we reconstructed in 2014. Some excerpts from “Images and Reflections.” It hasn’t been seen since 1961. “Events 2,” which is part of “Seven New Dances” and hasn’t been seen since 1958. “Tracer,” which Taylor 2 reconstructed in 2016, but was last performed by the Paul Taylor company in 1963. And there’s a piece called “Duet” — also known as “Hayden Duet” or “Duet from Lento” — and that was last performed in 1992.

These early works are going to be a lens through which we view world premieres by Peter Chu and Michelle Manzanales. It’s this idea of how does the past inform how we view the present?

And the idea is to explore that in a different setting than Lincoln Center?

Yes. I want the stage to amplify the power of the work. You’re getting a different side of Taylor. I’m finding, at least with the master classes we’ve been doing around the country, that when the dancers are teaching the more kind of rebellious work from the ’60s, students are responding to it.

Because it feels more relevant?

I don’t know what the parallel is, but you have this really visceral, kinetic, technical, emotionally intense way of moving and students are latching onto it. A lot of the early work has that. “Scud” is almost like a precursor to Gaga [the movement form created by Ohad Naharin]. It’s also a way to get students to recognize there’s more to Taylor.

Is this starting to feel like your company?

Yeah. [Smiles] I think I’m learning what matters to me as a viewer of the work, and I think the dancers are starting to understand that when I say something, it’s always coming from a place of wanting them to look their best. I’m also very transparent. If I’ve given a note that in the studio was very important and we get onstage and it’s the wrong note, I’ll say, “Don’t do that, you were right.” It makes people feel empowered to take risks onstage so there’s some play in it. You can’t take risks and be afraid of making mistakes. It’s in the doing.

Paul didn’t tell his dancers much about his works. Is this related?

He liked watching the dancer figure it out. He liked giving you a challenge or an obstacle or a directive and then sitting back and seeing what you would do with it.

He was also famous for giving you two notes that contradicted each other. Like “I want you to crawl slower but get off faster.” For him, there was something in the spirit of the try, the spirit of the effort. I intend on keeping that.

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