Michael Novak, 35, who studied at the University of the Arts and apprenticed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth, on Thursday was named artistic director of the seminal Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Company founder Paul Taylor chose Novak as artistic director designate in May, and Novak moved to the top position after Taylor died Wednesday at age 88.
Novak is just the second artistic director in the 64-year history of one of America's finest modern dance companies.
In addition to taking on the business of running the company, he plans to remain on the stage. "Paul Taylor was very specific in asking me to keep dancing during all of this, so I'm taking that to heart moving forward," Novak said from New York, where the company is based.
"Nothing prepares you for the loss of a loved one … the loss of an icon," he said.
As for taking the helm, "it's very deep on a level that I don't think you can really plan for," Novak said. "It's very similar to when you perform: Think things through, contemplate, but until you're out on stage doing the work, that's where the magic happens. This is on a slightly different scale."
The Taylor company has danced in Philadelphia 15 times — most recently at the Prince Theater in November — and is scheduled to come back in the 2019-20 season at the Annenberg Center, according to F. Randolph Swartz, who has presented dance in Philadelphia since 1971 and is the artistic director of NextMove Dance, now affiliated with the Annenberg.
Swartz said the program will be a Taylor retrospective, with some footage, commentary about Taylor's legacy, and three Taylor works (to be announced) that haven't been seen recently.
Novak "was a very interesting and unique choice" to succeed Taylor, said Swartz. Prior to the May announcement, "I don't think anybody anticipated that Taylor was going to name anybody to succeed him, and it's really a great story, because Michael Novak was called to Paul Taylor's home on his day off — and that usually means you're getting fired."
Indeed, Novak said Friday, "It was a shocking and overwhelmingly profound experience to be told, 'You're the one who is going to take care of the company when I'm gone.'
"I figured he had been watching my dance and had a note for me. I didn't expect to walk into his apartment and have the conversation we had."
Succession has been a concern for choreographer-led companies for many years. The Martha Graham Dance Company, where Taylor danced in the 1950s, faced legal problems when Graham died without a succession plan.
After Merce Cunningham died in 2009, the company toured for two years and then folded.
At Philadanco, Joan Myers Brown has said she's considered several succession plans, and plans to retire one way or another when the company turns 50 in 2020.
Novak came to Philadelphia after falling in love with dance and musical theater in a high school production of West Side Story in his native Illinois. In 2001, he started at the University of the Arts on a Presidential Scholarship.
"I loved the city of Philadelphia, and their facilities were absolutely stunning," Novak said.
But soon he discovered that his ballet training was "not as evolved" as his jazz, which could hold him back professionally. So he did a summer intensive at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, where he was soon offered an apprenticeship and left UArts.
Injuries sidelined him, and Novak returned to college, at Columbia University. He had intended to quit ballet but eventually went on to dance with the Columbia Ballet Collaborative. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 2008, and joined Taylor's company in 2010.