Lauren Lovette has a new job that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – not just for herself but for the dance world. Until the fall, Lovette was an esteemed director of New York City Ballet, but now she’s moved into modern dance and has been named the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s first resident choreographer.
“I said yes right away,” Lovette, 30, said of the offer in a recent interview at Taylor’s studio on the Lower East Side.
Her first work for the company, “Pentimento,” which she began creating just before the Covid-19 shutdown and worked on throughout the pandemic, will have its premiere at the City Center Dance Festival, a new spring offer which opens with the Taylor company on March 24th. Set to music by Alberto Ginastera, “Pentimento” celebrates the individuality of its cast of 14 dancers.
Lovette said she has never encountered such diverse dancers, both in terms of personalities and approaches to movement. “I give them the same line in eight counts, and it looks completely different on each person,” she said before lowering her voice to a whisper. “I love this.”
But, truly, she admires the entire Taylor organization — especially the bond between her dancers. For Lovette, they are fearless. “It’s an atmosphere,” she said. “There is no mirror. There is no competitive energy. There is no one trying to outdo another person or trying to get in front of the group. It really is the most neutral space I have ever created. Which seems limitless.
The reason for this atmosphere? “A lot of people say it’s because they feel Paul’s presence in the room,” Lovette said. “I don’t know if it’s true, but I felt it from the first day I started working here.”
When Taylor, a modern master, died in 2018, aged 88, the company lost its chief choreographer. In creating the position of resident choreographer, Michael Novak, a former member of the company who took over the artistic reins at Taylor’s request, wanted to build something lasting: he made it a five-year job. This gives the choreographer enough time to bond with the dancers. And he gives himself a creative partner.
“It’s not just a resident choreographer position for me, it’s also a collaborator and a visionary that I can go to and be like, ‘What do you think?'” Novak said. . “It’s really about ushering in a new era of modern dance for us. We can do things that are traditional, we can do things that are not traditional, but it’s important that the resident choreographer be part of that conversation.
Novak said he thinks about the individual voices that emerged in modern dance at the start of the 20th century: how those who fought for dance to be an expressive art form also responded to the social, political and cultural issues of the ‘era. For Novak, it’s not just about a specific era, but “an approach to the period of dance creation, and that’s something I plan to take the company forward with,” he said. -he declares. “Lauren – her voice, her story, what she reacts to, what she will continue to create and respond to – is the fuel we need to push the art form forward.”
It’s curious and, to some, perhaps worrying that Novak, who will go on to commission other choreographers, chose a ballet dancer to do this push. The worlds of ballet and modern dance have a long history of acrimony. What would Taylor have thought, who was a big proponent of modern dance and looked upon ballet with some disdain?
Lovette’s exposure to modern dance is limited. Apart from a few random classes in Gaga or jazz, she was not trained outside of ballet. “It wasn’t my scholarship,” she said. “My scholarship was for ballet. But when I manage to choreograph, I can do other things.
And she was well acquainted with the Taylor company, which had seasons at Lincoln Center, in the same theater as the City Ballet. “When I was at City Ballet, I was so busy that I didn’t really want to go see more dance performances in my free time,” she said. “But I would see them. ‘Speaking in tongues,’ more than any other dance piece I’ve ever seen, touches a very personal and raw place in me. I cried when I first saw it.”
In this searing 1988 work, Taylor tackled the religious bigotry and hypocrisy of a small-town preacher. “Talk about a diverse choreographer,” she continued. “I mean, it’s like you never know what you’re going to see on the show.”
Her choreographic sensibility, like Taylor’s, encompasses both light and dark. It’s passionate, lush and full of imagination, the kind that turns weird. And she knows how to draw on the qualities of the dancers present in the room.
Lovette can seem non-threatening: she’s short and childish with a sunny demeanor, but she also has a rebellious side. It can be defiant, resolute. And she made unexpected choices, including leaving City Ballet at its peak, aged 29, to pursue choreography after it became clear that it was not possible to balance her demands with those of to be a female lead.
With the Taylor company, Lovette has a home base, but she will always dance for other companies and even, potentially, dance elsewhere too. She hasn’t given up on the world of ballet — she still creates ballets and studies privately with Isabelle Guérin, the former star of the Paris Opera — but she doesn’t consider herself an ordinary ballerina. Yet she understands what Taylor’s work looks like from the outside: a ballet dancer invading the world of modern dance.
“I think I prepared for this,” Lovette said. “People may have their opinion about my story or my background, but people have had opinions about it since I can remember. I was homeschooled. I never felt like I really belonged in the world of ballet. I’m used to being looked at a bit with reviews.
At City Ballet, Lovette created dances that pushed gender norms — and ballet norms too. She confused people, probably even her former bosses, with works like “Not Our Fate” (2017), a lush, feverish dance with a romantic pas de deux for two men and references to the Black Lives Matter movement; and “The Shaded Line” (2019), in which she explores the identity and body of female ballet. At one point, the barefoot androgynous heroine paired up with another woman. Lovette is in tune with the world around her, and for Novak, that was part of the attraction.
He first saw her ballets before becoming Taylor’s artistic director. While he said he could see echoes of George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of City Ballet, he also observed something else: “There was an emotional risk-taking and also an emotional warmth to his work that seemed very Taylor,” he said. “Our repertoire can get very, very dark, but it can also get really romantic. Emotions guide what we do. And I saw that Lauren took that out of the dancers in a way that felt very authentic. Reminds me of Paul Taylor.
Novak thinks Taylor was much more influenced by Balanchine than he lets on, “in terms of musicianship, in terms of ensemble work, in terms of rebelling against convention,” he said.
Taylor viewed the stage as a painter, using the proscenium as a frame, and Novak thinks the same is true for Lovette. “Guiding the viewer’s eye was hugely important to Paul,” he said. “I think Paul maybe saw parts of himself in his work in terms of how she saw the scene, how she saw the bodies. It gives you light, it gives you darkness, it gives you beauty, it gives you excitement, it gives you loneliness and anguish, all in a very short time.
Lovette, who read Taylor’s autobiography, “Private Domain,” said she was related to him in some ways. He was a loner, and she always felt that about herself.
She wishes she could have met Taylor, but she realizes that could have made things harder for her now. “I have my own experience of the business, from my eyes, from my point of view,” she said. “And I want to be careful that I don’t live in the shadow of a ghost or try to be something that I’m not and therefore, therefore, get in the way of what’s possible now with the dancers. I also want to have this respect for the space, this respect for the founder, in the same way that I feel at City Ballet.
She knows she can’t ignore Taylor’s legacy; it is part of his responsibility.
“But I think spending too much time dwelling on it is not a good thing either, because you have to come up with new ideas,” she said. “And I think Paul would want it too.”