San Francisco Performances presents Paul Taylor Dance Company, locally premiering “Concertiana” (from left, Lee Duveneck, Eran Brugge and George Smallwood are pictured) on Program A. (Courtesy Paul B. Goode)

Paul Taylor Dance Co. celebrates its late founder

Michael Novak takes reins of acclaimed contemporary troupe

This week, the Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to San Francisco — without Paul Taylor.

It’s a first for the acclaimed American company founded and led by the groundbreaking choreographer, who died at age 88 in August 2018.

For many of his devoted fans, Taylor’s loss is still an occasion for grieving. But “The Celebration Tour,” presented Feb. 19-23 by San Francisco Performances, is an homage worthy of Taylor’s stature and artistic vision, says Michael Novak, a longtime Paul Taylor dancer who is now the company’s artistic director.

“When Paul Taylor passed away, it was a moment to reflect on how incredibly vast his imagination was,” Novak said in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to figure out how to create an opportunity to remind audiences around the world of that.

“I sat down with his full catalog of works — 147 dances — and looked at dances that I personally loved, that I knew the dancers loved to perform; dances that were particularly poignant within his artistic maturation as a choreographer.”

From there, Novak winnowed the list to 70. The company, now partway through a multi-year international tour that launched in February in Richardson, Texas at the Eisermann Center, will present six of those dances in San Francisco. Included are Taylor masterworks such as the iconic 1975 “Esplanade,” as well as “Cloven Kingdom” and “Polaris” (both from 1976), “Company B” (1991) and “Piazzolla Caldera” (1997).

New to the Bay Area is the West Coast premiere of 2018’s “Concertiana,” set to a concerto for violin and strings by Eric Ewazen. It was the final work Taylor made for the company he founded in 1954.

“It was the last work that I was in with him,” said Novak. “It’s a beautiful work with a variety of solos and duets against this backdrop of bodies moving. Of course, we didn’t know it was the last piece that he was going to make” — which adds, he says, to the poignancy of remembering Taylor as a master dance maker, “and those final moments we had, collaborating with him.”

Taylor had named Novak as his successor, and after the choreographer’s death, Novak spent a year talking with company dancers, staff, board members and longtime audience members. “It facilitated the grieving process and the letting go, and it was a way to gather information and ideas about our past and our future, to start synthesizing that going forward,” he said.

One of the last things Taylor asked Novak to do was go into the audience and watch dances from the audience’s point of view. “It was a remarkable experience,” Novak said. “With some of the repertoire, I’d only been in them. Watching the work — and watching audiences watch the work — taught me a lot about what draws people to the Paul Taylor canon. There’s a humanity and a sensitivity that the dancers have with each other. People connect to them not just as athletes, but as people.”

Novak, 37, stopped dancing with the company when Taylor died. “It was bittersweet; I’d been dancing and moving for 27 years,” he said. “So there’s sadness, but also a lot of excitement about the work going forward.”

Since the tour started, the company has danced in 18 cities in four countries. But for Novak, returning to San Francisco always feels special. For more than 20 of Taylor’s astonishing 64-year career, San Francisco Performances has been a second home.

“We’ve been performing there since 1963, so the Bay Area has seen not only a lot of the repertoire, but the growth of Paul Taylor as a choreographer. It’s a special relationship. It’s something you sense as a performer in front of an audience that truly loves these works. There’s an understanding, an admiration, an enthusiasm that comes from memory. We get that in San Francisco every time.”

IF YOU GO

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Where: Blue Shield of California Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19-21; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22; 2 p.m. Feb. 23

Tickets: $45 to $90; $10-$15 (family matinee)

Contact: (415) 392-2545, sfperformances.org

SCHEDULE

Program A: “Company B,” “Concertiana” and “Esplanade” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 and Feb. 22; 2 p.m. Feb. 23

Program B: “Cloven Kingdom,” “Polaris” sand “Piazzolla Caldera” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20-21

Family Matinee: Hour-long show for multi-generational audience at 2 p.m. Feb. 22

Dance

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