Michael Novak

The dancer gets his dream job with Paul Taylor.

With a showbiz mix of tap and jazz, Michael Novak began dancing at age ten at the Bonnie Lindholm School of the Dance in Palatine, Illinois, but it wasn't until a couple of years later that he really fell for the art form. He came down with a severe stutter; dance, in his words, "liberated me from being me." Until now, Novak, 28, has existed on the fringes of the dance world—he was a member of Columbia Ballet Collaborative and also delivered a brilliant performance in Afternoon of a Faun as part of "Celebrating Diaghilev in Music and Dance" at Miller Theatre in 2009. But in August, Novak's dance journey took a serious turn when he became a new member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. In conjunction with the group's City Center season, Novak spoke about his uphill battle and what it's like after a dream comes true.

When did you start dancing?
I was ten at the Bonnie Lindholm School of the Dance in Palatine, Illinois. That's about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, in the suburbs. I had tried a number of sports as a kid and none of them really spoke to me, nor was I particularly good at them. I tried basketball, karate and gymnastics. I suggested dance; I started with jazz and tap, and the more I started to take dance classes, the more I fell in love with it. And then around 12, I started to develop a severe stuttering problem, and for about a year or so I couldn't talk. I was in intense speech therapy, and dance kind of became my out. I didn't have to communicate verbally, I could communicate physically, so in certain respects dancing liberated me from being me. At the same time, it allowed me to communicate in a way that I normally couldn't.

Exactly how was dance liberating?
Not being able to talk and being in that age bracket of 12, 13, socially was really rough. And I was ashamed of not being able to talk. It was frustrating, and dance provided an outlet for me to get out my frustrations and my angst and to just be in the moment. I did jazz, tap and musical theater up until high school and then I went to the University of the Arts [in Philadelphia] and realized I had no ballet training. [Laughs] We did a lot of competition jazz and tap at the school; it was very theatrical. There were 30 of us, and we did a lot of freelancing as a company. It was always about the persona you had while you performed, not the technical aspect as much. I realized how far behind I was, so I started watching a lot more ballet. I fell in love with it. In competition, a lot of the dances are short—three or four minutes, show it, sell it, and it's over. To see a full-length ballet shifted how I looked at dance, how I looked at bodies, how I looked at how the body trains. So I decided to leave jazz and tap completely behind and devote all my attention to ballet. I took an apprenticeship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet.

What type of training was it?
Vaganova. I learned a lot very quickly by only devoting myself to ballet, but perhaps it was too late at that point: I was 19, 20, and just finding fifth position, and I ended up injuring myself. I had been battling shin splints for a while and then in 2003, I got stress fractures in both shinbones. I had what could be called a breakdown. I sort of threw in the towel and quit. I moved to New York and I freelanced doing window displays and production design for a couple of years.

Henri Bendel. Clinique. A lot of the Este Lauder corporations. I worked for a production-design studio in Chelsea for two years until I heard that Columbia University had an undergraduate program for nontraditional students like myself [the School of General Studies]. There was something about the Columbia campus that I fell in love with. I didn't really have an intention to go back to dancing. I was thinking maybe education or arts administration. And then I started taking dance classes again.

At Barnard?
At Barnard. I went right back into ballet, with Katie Glasner and Allegra Kent. I also started taking modern classes with Donlin Foreman and Colleen Thomas. Colleen's class really just gave me a chance to explore my body—how I liked to move rather than basing it off of a strict technique. I started auditioning for the choreographers who were coming in [to stage works at Barnard] and I did some repertory by Bill T. Jones and Stephen Petronio and started to get that itch again. [Writer] Mindy Aloff and [former Taylor dancer and chair of Barnard's dance department] Mary Cochran both mentioned Taylor. They said that I should check it out, and it wasn't the first time that Taylor had been in the periphery, but it was the first time that I had two teachers who were very encouraging about it.

Is that when you started taking classes at the Taylor school?
Yes, in 2008. I had seen some videos of Taylor's work at the University of the Arts, and I didn't think much of it—I was in my bunhead phase. [Laughs] I fell in love with the style before I fell in love with the rep. I started taking classes at the [Taylor] school—it was extremely technical and challenging and virtuosic in many respects, but there was also a theatricality and humanness to it that grabbed me. I loved how the style blended the two together. I would say that what also attracted me was the presence that the Taylor dancers have when they perform the work: Whether it's light or dark, you really see who they are.

There's individuality?
Yes, but there's uniformity as well, and it's that balancing game of going back and forth. I saw the company at City Center in 2008, and I started to recognize the range of the work. The evening would end and I felt like I had seen three different choreographers. I did the summer intensive in 2008 and that was my breakthrough: I realized this was a style that I wanted to keep rehearsing. We would end our day and I wanted to keep working on stuff, whereas in ballet classes I was like, I'm done. I want to stretch. But with Taylor, I wanted to watch more rep and to see different versions of the same dance. It was just as much an intellectual curiosity as it was physical.

What did you learn in the summer intensive?
We learned Arden Court, Runes, Airs and Three Epitaphs. There was such a difference in all four of them. They all had the same alphabet, but how Mr. Taylor used the alphabet to create these pieces was just fascinating. Mary Cochran suggested that I ask Mr. Taylor for permission to do the man's solo from Aureole for my senior project.

Did he watch you rehearse or perform it?
No. [Laughs] It was a very humbling experience. I watched videos of him doing it; I watched videos of Patrick Corbin. Mary worked with me on homing in on the very fine details of the Taylor style. It's an extremely challenging solo. It was very intimidating to perform and to try to live up to the caliber of the choreography.

Why is it so difficult?
The solo has this potential—if you're a brilliant dancer like Paul and Patrick—to be sustained in a never-ending line of this way of moving that just breathes constantly. There's no pose. It's one four-minute transition. In the competition dance world, it's a lot about shape and pose and hitting things—so to work on something that long and that technically challenging, but as smooth as silk, was something unlike anything I had ever done.

What did you major in at Columbia?
Dance. I was originally going to double major in dance and religion, and about halfway through my academic career I decided to just focus on dance. When the interest in having a career started to really cement itself, I decided, You know what? I want to learn about my field, I want to take classes in dance history and dance criticism. I want to know the world that I'm performing in. Almost all the classes were offered through Barnard. There was only one joint Barnard-Columbia class: "Music and Dance: Romanticism from Mark Morris." We studied the musical perspective from a music teacher at Columbia, and Lynn Garafola taught the dance-history component. It rocked my world. And I took three more courses with Lynn Garafola. She worked with me on my senior thesis.

What was the subject?
I wrote my senior thesis on dance photographer George Platt Lynes. I did a term paper on the souvenir programs of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet all through the '40s, '50s and '60s, and I found George Platt Lynes's photography to be particularly mesmerizing. I made an entire thesis out of just studying how he photographed and promoted dance. And the more photos I started looking at the more I fell in love with how he portrayed the human body with light and shadow. He was a fashion photographer, so he lit dancers like models in a way that was very different from Martha Swope when she started photographing City Ballet. It was regal and beautiful, and it was never about the dancers' performance in that moment. It was a staged scene.

When you were studying at the Taylor school, were there teachers you gravitated toward? Who encouraged you?
[Laughs] I gravitated toward every teacher. I was like, "Tell me everything, give me corrections." It was so wonderful to be in a place where the rep kept feeding me and where I could go to the alumni and ask: "When you did this, what was it like?" After the summer intensive, in the fall of 2008, there was an audition; I didn't know what to expect, but I had been taking classes regularly. I got to the end and there were eight men left and Paul went around and said, "Thank you" to those of us who he didn't give the job to, ending with the person he did give the job to. And he told me, "The timing's just not right," but not to go anywhere. I was so excited that I even got that far that I ran out of the building skipping.

You performed Nijinsky's part in Afternoon of a Faun. How did that affect your dancing?
I had studied with a Franois Delsarte master for a couple of years, and I began to understand the subtleties of gesture and directions in space. That combined with my experiences doing Taylor repertory came together in Faun—it allowed the two-dimensionality of Faun to be very alive without looking static. Sometimes the thing that can have the greatest impact is not moving at all. It can be just looking, walking, lifting a hand, and that is a huge component of Mr. Taylor's work. It's not just the dancing, it's also the walking, the touching someone on the shoulder or the forearm, and that's equally as powerful and important.

It's easy to screw up.
[Laughs] It can ruin the scene very quickly if it's not heartfelt. And it's hard. Simple is very hard.

Like walking.
Yeah. And the first thing you do at an audition is walk. He's interested in seeing you walk, because it is an important component of his work. You can't hide behind anything; you can't show off your technical virtuosity, and you can't ham it up and be very theatrical—you just have to walk. It's the bare bones of movement. I think it shows who you are and where you're at mentally—are you too confident? Are you insecure? Are you anxious? You see people walking down the street all the time and you can kind of tell what their agenda is based on how they're walking.

Since you didn't get into the company in 2008, what did you do after graduation
I auditioned for a bunch of companies in Montreal and came back to New York. I was freelancing. I was a private accountant, I was auditing at NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts], I was working backstage at ABT as one of the flower presenters. I was freelancing with Daniel Gwirtzman, Gina Gibney and Bonnie Scheibman, and teaching body-conditioning classes. My student loans started becoming due, so I got in contact with a couple of agents in L.A. and was making plans to move there when I received a phone call that Mr. Taylor was going to be having an audition. It was really hard for me to go to the audition, not because I was nervous about doing well; it was more about how I was putting my career in his hands. When they were announcing who he was going to take into the main company, I misheard the number that was called, so I had a four-second moment to myself where I thought, I'm going to L.A. Okay. Let's do it. Game face on. And then I realized I had heard the wrong number and that it was me. [Laughs] I was dumbfounded. The audition was in May and I started in August.

What have these first few months been like?
They've been a challenge. A lot of the work that I'd been doing prior to being in the company was improv-based, where you generate tons of material and then it's the choreographer's job to create a piece. Sometimes music is an afterthought. Sometimes counts are an afterthought. Sometimes spacing is an afterthought and it's all just by chance. Working with Mr. Taylor has been quite the opposite; he comes in with ideas, he comes in with music, more often than not, he comes in with counts. He has an idea for relationships or spatial patterns or movement or gesture, and that's the spark. And you just build from there.

When did you first perform with the company?
At Fall for Dance. I performed Company B. We were getting ready for our fall tour, so we had six weeks to get all of our rep ready, and I was cast in nine pieces with 12 to understudy. I wish my brain was bigger at times; I wish I could retain more information. But you can only do so much, you can only grow so fast. [Laughs]

What were the nine?
Brief Encounters, Promethean Fire, Black Tuesday, Piazzolla Caldera, Company B, Speaking in Tongues, Three Dubious Memories and Arden Court, which I haven't performed. I'll be performing it at City Center. And Cloven Kingdom.

What is the process?
We learn predominantly from video and from other dancers. It's a lot of homework, and the expectation is that you come in as prepared as you possibly can be and whatever you have to do to be prepared, you do. I just stayed up really late watching things over and over and over. I reviewed counts and choreography. Paul Taylor is such a master at spatial patterns, and learning the choreography off of video was a challenge; when you translate it into a three-dimensional space, it's a whole different perspective. Now that I know the system, it's the first thing I learn, because it's such an important part of the work.

In terms of repertory, what has gone well and what hasn't?
Cloven Kingdom went really well, aside from the endurance and stamina portion of it. I knew my counts and I felt like I knew my steps, but the stamina took me by surprise. [Dancer] Sean Mahoney and [rehearsal director] Bettie De Jong told me you have to choreograph when you're going to breathe and when you're going to relax. There weren't really any major snafus. It was just a lot to learn really quickly. But the work is so amazing. [Laughs] I think the biggest problem I had learning it off video was that I just kept watching it. There's a women's trio in Arden Court that I've probably watched more than anything else in the past eight months. It's mesmerizing.

You are in a new work, Three Dubious Memories.
Mr. Taylor started choreographing it the first day I started. He announced that I was going to be in the new dance, and he was very matter of fact: "Okay, we're going to start over here and we're going to start doing this. Here are the counts and here's what I'm thinking," and he just went into it. Every choreographer works differently and likes input from dancers or doesn't like input from dancers—so I kind of stayed back and watched the other dancers for guidance to learn how they relate to Paul Taylor when he's making work. I just hung on for the ride.

How did you learn to conduct yourself?
I think there's definitely an energy of the unknown in the room. You never know what he's going to ask you to do, or if you've ever done it before, so there's that anticipation. Where are we going to go? How are we going to get there? He might give us a footwork pattern and then add a jump, and say, "Can you add three jumps in the same amount of time?" And you do. In my mind, I'm trying to imagine what he's thinking about or what he's going to do, or how he's going to make that work. Every time, what he decides to do and how he does it blows me away. His use of counterpoint is stunning. So there was that excitement and wanting to impress the boss a little, but also trying to just be me.

What is your part like in Three Dubious Memories?
There are three main dancers. The title, Three Dubious Memories, comes from how the same event is viewed from three different perspectives. Throughout the dance, each person gets their perspective shown, and there's a Greek chorus that serves as the two-dimensional backdrop to the three-dimensional relationship. I'm one of the choristers. You're part of the drama, and you're commenting upon it, but you're not involved in it. So you're kind of like fog, moving in and out. It's a really good piece. The lighting is wonderful. I would also say that his dances are worlds in themselves, and I've been having a challenge shifting from one to the next.

How so?
In doing something like Piazzolla Caldera, which is heated, sexual and just very primal, and then going into Company B. It's a different kind of presence that you have to provide. And then you go into Promethean Fire, which is much more technical. There is a lot of stuff that I'd love to dance, but I don't think I'm ready for it. I could probably spend a year just seeing it all, but I'm trusting Paul Taylor to cast me in the dances he deems me worthy of. Let me grow. It's up to him. [Laughs] I'm still trying to be me, but I'm his servant.

It must be so different from your musical-theater aspirations. Do you sing?
I did when I was in high school. I had a lot of teachers in high school who were encouraging me to go the musical theater route, but I just didn't. Maybe it was, in part, because of the acting and the stuttering. It would have meant confronting that on a daily basis, and I didn't have the time or energy, and dancing was just where I felt at home.

How did you get over your stutter?
I worked with a speech pathologist that specialized in stuttering for about a year and a half. For me, it wasn't so much about learning how to speak fluently as much as it was dealing with the emotional recourses of not being able to talk. At some point you stop trying to talk, and something as simple as calling to order a pizza becomes a nightmare. My parents were incredibly supportive, but "What do you want for dinner?" turned into, "Pizza, pasta, spaghetti, hot dog?" You just kind of give up. And that's at home. Then you get into junior high, and it's a whole other...

Hell on earth.
Yeah. It's not easy to fit in anyway. [Laughs] At least you can defend yourself verbally. So slowly I became more comfortable with stuttering in public and being more open about it as a problem, and then I got into high school and found a really good group of friends, and that allowed me to talk more despite my stuttering blocks.

Did you have friends who were dancers when you were younger?
I did. It's funny. One of the hardest things this past year, apart from spreading myself too thin, was that a lot of my friends who I danced with growing up were starting to retire or shift career paths; you start to feel isolated. I started to feel like I was the only one left hanging on for the dream job. That was hard for me. It still is, but what's interesting is that at 28, I'm one of the youngest people in the company, whereas in the ballet world, at 25 or 26 you're...

Ready for the curb?
Yeah. In the ballet mind-set, my career was on the decline based on that aesthetic. But in a matter of seconds, my career went from being close to ending to just starting, and that shift has been a whirlwind. It's not just one more year. I have years to keep growing.

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