Michael Novak ’09 Welcomes GS Community to Paul Taylor Dance Company Performance

GS students and alumni were recently invited to attend a performance by Paul Taylor Dance Company and a behind-the-scenes talk with Michael Novak '09GS, the company's artistic director, about their first dance season since the beginning of the pandemic.

April 18, 2022

Michael Novak ‘09GS is no stranger to non-traditionalism—in his path to GS over a decade ago or in his current role as Artistic Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Last month during a GS Alumni Association (GSAA) event at New York City Center, Novak spoke to GS students and alumni about the years to come and the changes that have been bubbling up in the dance industry.

“I am looking forward to carrying the Paul Taylor Dance Company into the future in a nontraditional way.”

Growing up in Chicago, Novak made his way in the world of dance, enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet at the age of 18. After developing stress fractures in both shins due to long rehearsal hours and studio pressures, he stepped away from the dance scene to heal and enrolled at GS when he was 23. After graduating in 2009, he embraced the New York City dance industry and joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company the following year. Following the death of Paul Taylor in 2018, Novak was named artistic director of the Company. 

Paul Taylor Dance Company performers on stage.

At the GSAA event, Novak invited current students and fellow GS alumni to a PTDC performance as part of the first-ever City Center Dance Festival and gave a behind-the-scenes look into his role as artistic director. Among his many responsibilities, he serves as curator of Paul Taylor’s original choreography, breathing new life into his work with every performance. Novak noted that in the spirit of Paul Taylor, new choreography may be performed and added to the existing dance repertoire. Reminiscing about his mentor, Novak remarked that Taylor’s background as a swimmer influenced many of the movements in his dances, describing how the dancers draw power from their backs and embrace the resistance of the air in motion. It is little details like this that Novak hoped the audience would pick up on, challenging them to shift their perspective of the dance world.

Novak also discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on the dance industry and how the current political and social atmosphere guided which pieces he chose to include in the performance. Even as the city closed down and the performing arts came to a screeching halt, PTDC continued to rehearse. As a singular unit, the entire company of dancers spent the past 20-plus months rehearsing non-stop to keep themselves at the top of their game. While the pandemic made for interesting and sometimes challenging rehearsal experiences, their resilience and persistent efforts were visible in their movement on stage. 

Acknowledging the turbulence and gravity of the past couple years, Novak said that he wanted to keep the atmosphere light and airy for their first New York season since the beginning of the pandemic. While the Paul Taylor repertoire contains many dances that reflect and comment on the less idyllic aspects of today’s society, Novak chose three classic pieces that best portrayed the spirit of love and resilience that has carried on right alongside the tragedies of the pandemic: Roses (1985), Offenbach Overtures (1995), and Esplanade (1975), all of which are original choreography from Paul Taylor.

Performance booklet and ticket.

Running through the program, Novak described Roses as six duets, where every couple represents a unique aspect of love. Throughout the piece, the audience saw the dancers pair off around the stage as the couples each performed their duet variation in turn. As the dancers swirled around the stage, the feelings of discovery and enchantment that they embodied filled the entire theater.

Responding to a question about audience etiquette, Novak encouraged attendees to engage with the performance, clapping when they see something they love and laughing when something is funny, rather than sitting in complete silence. Novak especially encouraged such behavior during the second piece, Offenbach Overtures, whose slapstick comedic tone—while not received well in France, he remembered—is meant to draw engagement and commentary from the audience. 

And finally, providing a short history on Esplanade, Novak recounted how it was one of the few dances to ever be proclaimed a masterpiece on its opening night. The longest piece of the night, while certainly light-hearted and youthful at points, held a strain of darkness and heavy emotion that wove its way through the dancers’ movements.

At the end of the night, dancer Michael Apuzzo took his last bow on stage after 14 years with the PTDC as his peers showered him with hugs and flowers. Novak relayed that while the performance was Apuzzo’s last, he would not be leaving the company altogether. Rather, Apuzzo is continuing his work in the industry as the incoming Development Specialist for the company.

As International Dance Day approaches on April 29, read more about Novak in Columbia Magazine and check out the Paul Taylor Dance Company website for more information on upcoming performances.