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From waiting tables in Philly to leading one of the world’s most famous dance troupes

If you ate at Marathon on the Square in the early 2000s, the new director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company may have been your server.

Michael Novak, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is the new artistic director of Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Michael Novak, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is the new artistic director of Paul Taylor Dance Company.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

If you ate at Marathon on the Square in the early 2000s, Michael Novak may have been your server. Today, at 36, he's the artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, one of the most prestigious modern dance companies in the world.

Novak — who resembles a young Paul Taylor — is just the second director in the troupe's 64-year history. Taylor chose him in May to be his successor, and he was moved to the top position in September, the week after Taylor died.

How has your life changed since September?

It's been an incredibly emotional six weeks. It's been very exciting, it's been very humbling.

What did you do first on the job?

My priority has been on the company, and making sure that in terms of morale and in terms of them being able to grieve and process loss, that they have the space and they have the freedom to do that. Audiences are going to [need to grieve, too]. And that's a big responsibility to ask the dancers, to not just process their own feelings but then they have to perform, and then they have to be the vehicles through which other people are processing their own feelings.

Taylor wanted you to keep dancing. How are you able to manage management and art?

I'm being strategic with my time on stage. I performed in Albany, N.Y., last weekend, and I'm going to take a couple of months to work with our staff, work with our board of directors on strategic planning. And then once we have a plan of what the next couple of years are going to be like, I can insert myself back on stage and in rehearsals and classes.

What is the scope of the Paul Taylor organization that you are responsible for?

The five major components of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation are: our archives, which we talked about. There's Taylor 2, which is our second dance company of six dancers. We have the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has 18 dancers. There's the Taylor School. And then we have our Paul Taylor American Modern Dance season at Lincoln Center. And that's where we have the contemporary commissions, the Paul Taylor repertory and historical modern works that Paul felt it was important to preserve.

You’re going to have to hire people?

We actually had an audition on Labor Day weekend, which was a couple of days after Paul passed away. So that happened right away. We hired two dancers. One of our most loyal dancers retired this past summer. So we had to hire someone to replace him. And then I hired someone else [to fill in for me]. Given the nature that I'm in now, that I can't produce the volume that I used to.

What is the process for creating a retrospective of Taylor’s work, your first large task?

Paul Taylor has 147 pieces that he choreographed, and I've been going through our video server. I probably know I'd say 80 to 90 of those dances. But there's a good probably 50 pieces that I've never seen before on video. Of that 50, there might be 20 that we don't have actual footage of. So that's something that I kind of need to go through piece by piece.

How has the transition been from wearing a unitard and tights to a suit?

It's been wonderful, but essentially my job as a dancer is to work out, cross-train, and then dance all day. I didn't need to wear a suit. So that's been kind of a funny transformation, getting a briefcase and that kind of stuff.

Not all dancers go to college. How did college prepare you for your job?

I have an unusual path, because I left high school and went to University of the Arts here in Philadelphia for a year. And then I was offered an apprenticeship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, in Narberth, which I took. And then I took some time off. And then I went to the School of General Studies at Columbia in New York City.

I entered Columbia thinking that I was probably going to go to grad school. I left Columbia thinking I actually wasn't done artistically.

Your plan B was grad school?

I was looking at a master's of arts administration. I was looking at a couple of MBA programs in design thinking. It's exactly [the type of work] I'm doing right now.

Your life has changed a lot very quickly from your Philadelphia days, hasn’t it?

It's definitely a shift from when I was here in Philadelphia. I was waiting tables at Marathon on the Square [in 2001-03]. I lived on 15th and Spruce. I usually did doubles on Saturdays and Sundays, brunch right into dinner. I would train at [the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet] all day Monday through Friday. I would work Friday night, and I would do two shifts Saturday, two shifts Sunday, and go back to ballet Monday.