Lauren Lovette has a new job that would have been unthinkable a few years ago — not only for herself but for the dance world. Until the fall, Lovette was an esteemed principal at New York City Ballet, but now she has crossed over into modern dance and has been named the first resident choreographer at the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
“I said yes right away,” Lovette, 30, said of the offer in a recent interview at the Taylor studio on the Lower East Side.
Her first work for the company, “Pentimento,” which she started 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 offering that opens with the Taylor company on March 24. Set to music by Alberto Ginastera, “Pentimento” celebrates the individuality of its cast of 14 dancers.
Lovette said she had never been around such diverse dancers, both in terms of their personalities and approaches to movement. “I give them the same eight-count phrase, and it looks completely different on each person,” she said and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “I love that.”
But, really, she admires the whole Taylor organization — especially the bond among its dancers. To Lovette, they are fearless. “It’s an atmosphere,” she said. “There’s no mirror. There’s no competitive energy. There’s no person trying to surpass another person or trying to get in front of the group. It really is the most neutral space I’ve ever been in to create. Which feels limitless.”
The reason for that atmosphere? “A lot of people say it’s because they feel Paul’s presence in the room,” Lovette said. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I felt it from the very first day I started working here.”
When Taylor, a modern master, died in 2018, at 88, the company lost its chief choreographer. In creating the position of resident choreographer, Michael Novak, a former company member who took over the artistic reigns at Taylor’s request, wanted to build something lasting: He made it a five-year job. That allows enough time for the choreographer to bond with the dancers. And it provides himself with a creative partner.
“It’s not just a resident choreographer position for me as much as it is a collaborator and a visionary who I can go to and be like, ‘What do you think about this?'” Novak said. “It’s really about ushering in a new era of modern dance for us. We may do things that are traditional, we may do things that are nontraditional, but it’s important that the resident choreographer is part of that conversation.”
Novak said he was thinking about the individual voices that emerged in modern dance in the early 20th century: How those fighting for dance to be an expressive art form were also reacting to the social, political and cultural issues of the day. For Novak, that isn’t just about a specific era, but is “an approach to dance making period, and it’s something that I’m planning on leading the company forward with,” he said. “Lauren — her voice, her story, what she’s reacting to, what she will continue to create and respond to — is the fuel that we need to push the art form.”
It’s curious and, for some, possibly disquieting that Novak, who will continue to commission other choreographers, has chosen a ballet dancer to make that push. The ballet and modern dance worlds have a long history of acrimony. What would Taylor, who was a major proponent of modern dance and looked at ballet with a measure of disdain, have thought?
Lovette’s exposure to modern dance is limited. Other than a few random classes in Gaga or jazz, she hasn’t trained outside of ballet. “It wasn’t my scholarship,” she said. “My scholarship was for ballet. But when I get to choreograph, I get to do something else.”
And she was familiar with the Taylor company, which had seasons at Lincoln Center, in the same theater as City Ballet. “When I was at City Ballet, I was so busy I didn’t really want to go and see more dance shows in my off time,” she said. “But I would see them. ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ more than any other dance piece I’ve ever seen, hits a very personal and raw place within me. I was crying when I first saw it.”
In that searing work from 1988, Taylor took on religious fanaticism and the hypocrisy of a preacher in a small town. “Talk about a diverse choreographer,” she continued. “I mean, it’s like you never knew what you were going to see in the show.”
Her choreographic sensibility, like Taylor’s, encompasses both the light and the dark. It’s passionate, lush and full of imagination, the kind that veers into weirdness. And she knows how to pull qualities from the dancers in the room.
Lovette may seem nonthreatening: She’s tiny and gamine with a sunny demeanor, but she has a rebellious side, too. She can be defiant, resolve. And she has made unexpected choices, including leaving City Ballet in her prime, at 29, to pursue choreography after it became apparent that balancing its demands with those of being a female principal wasn’t feasible.
With the Taylor company, Lovette has a home base, but she will still make dances for other companies and even, potentially, dance somewhere else, too. She has not abandoned the ballet world — she still creates ballets and is studying privately with Isabelle Guérin, the former Paris Opera Ballet étoile — but she doesn’t see herself as an ordinary ballerina. Still, she understands what the Taylor job looks like from the outside: a ballet dancer invading the modern dance world.
“I think I’ve been preparing for this,” Lovette said. “People can have their opinions about my history or my background, but people have had opinions about that since I can remember. I was home schooled. I never felt like I belonged, really, in the ballet world. I’m used to being a little bit looked at with critique.”
At City Ballet, Lovette made 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 explored identity and the female ballet body. At one point, the androgynous heroine, in bare feet, partnered with another woman. Lovette is tuned in to 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 in her work that felt very Taylor to me,” he said. “Our repertory can get very, very dark, but it can also get genuinely romantic. Emotions are driving what we do. And I saw Lauren was pulling that out of dancers in a way that felt very genuine. It reminds me of Paul Taylor.”
Novak thinks that Taylor was far more influenced by Balanchine than he let on, “in terms of musicality, in terms of ensemble work, in terms of rebelling against convention,” he said.
Taylor viewed the stage like a painter, using the proscenium as a frame, and Novak thinks the same is true of Lovette. “Guiding the eye for the viewer was incredibly important to Paul,” he said. “I think Paul might have seen parts of himself in her work in terms of how she saw the stage, how she saw bodies. She gives you the light, she gives you the dark, she gives you the beauty, she gives you the excitement, she gives you the loneliness and the angst all in a very short amount of time.”
Lovette, who has read Taylor’s autobiography, “Private Domain,” said she related to him in some ways. He was a loner, and she has always felt that way about herself.
She wishes that she could have met Taylor, but she realizes that could have made things more difficult for her now. “I have my own experience of the company, from my eyes, from my point of view,” she said. “And I want to be careful that I’m not living in a shadow of a ghost or trying to be something that I’m not and then, therefore, getting in the way of what’s possible now with the dancers. I also want to have that respect of the space, respect to the founder, in the same way I feel at City Ballet.”
She knows that she can’t ignore the Taylor legacy; that’s part of her responsibility.
“But I think that spending too much time lingering in that is not a good thing either, because you need to have new ideas,” she said. “And I think Paul would want that, too.”