For decades, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has been performing in Philadelphia every few years. This weekend’s visit, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, is the company’s 17th time dancing here — and its first without its late founder Taylor at the helm.
Taylor died in 2018 at age 88. Michael Novak, the company’s new artistic director, is a longtime Paul Taylor dancer who spent some of his formative years in Philadelphia. In the early 2000s, Novak attended University of the Arts and was an apprentice at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, in Narberth. He was also a waiter at Marathon on the Square.
The company’s current tour is a multiyear retrospective honoring Taylor, Novak said by phone last week, with different programs along the way drawing from a pool of 147 Paul Taylor pieces. “We’re touring retrospectives of dances he felt were very important in his maturity as a choreographer — works I love, and that audiences love.”
The Philadelphia stop is also programmed in honor of Randy Swartz, the firebrand behind NextMove Dance, which joined Annenberg in a copresenting partnership in 2018. Swartz is retiring this spring after 50 years of bringing dance companies to Philadelphia.
Novak said Swartz is part of Taylor’s legacy. “Randy has been a huge ally for us,” he said. “He actually helped commission Paul Taylor’s famous work Speaking in Tongues,” from 1988.
The Taylor company reached out to the Philadelphia promoter to help build the program for the Annenberg performances, and Swartz said he found that touching. “I have two words for you," he said, "old and flattered.”
The lineup is the dance equivalent of comfort food, with three Taylor favorites: Syzygy, Sunset, and Piazzolla Caldera. The first and third numbers were chosen specifically to honor Swartz.
Syzygy is a 1987 piece that hasn’t been danced in 20 years. Novak calls it “a dynamic, athletic work,” and Swartz says he loves that energy.
“It was also a departure for Mr. Taylor from his avant-garde beginnings,” Swartz said. “It’s a piece in which the audience is left wondering, ‘Are they going to survive?’ It’s just so over-the-top. It’s so energetic, it’s so crazy.”
Piazzolla Caldera, was created in 1997 and hasn’t been danced since 2006. It’s a take on the tango but uses no tango steps, and Swartz said it expresses "all the things that Paul Taylor is. … He took a social dance and turned it into a company piece. There’s characters in it, there’s humor in it. It’s Paul Taylor pouring all of his genius into it. It’s a great closer.”
The other piece, Sunset, was created in 1983 and hasn’t been danced since 1988. It is a romantic look at relationships between soldiers on leave and the women they meet. It is the type of Taylor piece that made former New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay call him “one of the superlative war poets.”
For audience members who might be nervous about how the company has fared since Novak succeeded his late boss, reviews have been positive. In November, New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote, “the company blooms under his direction.”
Wall Street Journal dance critic Robert Greskovic wrote that Novak’s initial steps are “taking flight nicely, propelling Paul Taylor’s legacy into a lively future.”
The secret, Novak said, is a careful balance of honoring the great master and moving forward.
“You’re trying to take audiences who have a relation with Paul Taylor’s world. You’re telling them it’s going to be OK,” he said. That means “sharing passions, comforting them,” but also innovating, pushing boundaries, and generating excitement without alienating."
With that in mind — not to mention his enormous new job — Novak retired from dancing following the company’s November performance at Lincoln Center. Now he likes to sit in the front of the house as much as possible, watching from different seats and speaking to audience members.
“What is the vibe in the room?" he likes to note. “That’s something I’m very sensitive to.”
Philadelphia audiences will be watching the company at a time of transition. Last spring, six signature Paul Taylor dancers retired, including Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack, and Novak has now hired seven new company members in his short time in charge — although he’s trying not to rock the boat.
“There’s a famous quote about Paul Taylor,” Novak said. “ ‘Paul Taylor doesn’t hire dancers, he hired people.’ It is a very warm company. We’re on the road a third to a half of the year. We’ve been together through injuries, marriages, childbirth, separation, moving, and deaths of parents.”
One of his current dancers, Madelyn Ho, took time away from the company a few years ago to go to Harvard Medical School. Alumni consult on historic works and perform as guests. Bettie De Jong, who joined the company in 1962 and was one of Taylor’s former dance partners, remains on staff as a rehearsal director.
“There is a sense of family here that is very special.”
Paul Taylor Dance Company
8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St.