There is a special place in my heart for jazz and modern dance. Unlike orchestral music and ballet (their European immigrant cousins), these two art forms were born and incubated in America. It’s hard to imagine jazz and modern dance coming to life anywhere else: both rely on a diversity of cultures and influences, along with a sense of freedom that is at the core of what it means to be American.

Paul Taylor, one of this nation’s most accomplished artists, is a living legend of modern dance. One of Martha Graham’s performers early in his career, Taylor went on to found his own company in 1954, building a style that is still going strong today. In his late 80s, he is still creating new works for his company, while spearheading an effort to permanently support modern dance in America. It’s very rare for us to share the planet with a living artist who has changed the face of an entire creative practice — and Paul Taylor is one of them.

Paul Taylor. Photo by Maxine Hicks.

Michael Novak, one of Paul’s longtime dancers, sat down with IVY to talk about the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s upcoming season at Lincoln Center. The season serves both as a showcase of Taylor’s repertory and modern dance classics from other dance makers, while simultaneously commissioning new modern dance works from contemporary choreographers. These dancers are busy! I hope you can catch Michael and the rest of the company at our IVY Culture Night on March 23.

What is quintessentially American about modern dance?

Michael Novak: “The origins of modern dance rest in the early 20th century, when a group of predominately female artists rejected the convention of ballet — its pointe shoes, tights, and tutus — and built a new, liberated way of moving that celebrated the freedom of the human body. These women were largely influenced by political, industrial, and cultural shifts that, at the time, forever altered what it meant to be a dancer, an artist, and a social and cultural icon.

“What makes these women “American”? Well, ironically, I believe it can be described in one word: freedom. Freedom to defy tradition and build new paradigms of art. Freedom to create works that reacted to social, political, and cultural shifts. Freedom to comment on the nature of the human condition in all its glory and horror. Freedom to pioneer an uncharted artistic landscape with zeal, hope, and a passion for human expression through movement.”

What is Paul Taylor’s contribution to modern dance?

“Paul Taylor is the last living choreographer in the pantheon of artists that created modern dance. Compared to his contemporaries, Mr. Taylor has built a legacy and repertory that is stylistically unique and thematically diverse, requiring its dancers to produce astounding feats of athleticism and strength, and a vast range of emotional presence. His works range from the comedic to the tragic, the classic to the abstract, and the airborne to the earthbound. This range is truly unparalleled in the canon of modern dance.”

What are some signature themes in Paul Taylor’s work?

“Paul Taylor was a competitive swimmer in his youth, and you will see many hints of that in his works. From fluid arm and back movements to bodies swirling around each other in space, his choreography will have dancers flowing about the stage like waves ebbing gently or crashing violently… all with a brightness and a purity that defies description.

“There is also a soul in Paul Taylor’s work that allows his dancers to express emotion and feeling with profound simplicity. It is not uncommon to watch his dancers look into each others’ eyes and sit back and marvel at their humanity, their openness with each other.”

What have you learned about human nature from dancing Paul Taylor’s work?

“Dancing Paul Taylor’s work has taught me the power of subtlety, and how profound a simple gesture can be. Producing effective gestures on stage that are not clichéd or pantomimic, it turns out, is difficult to create, but is actually an incredibly universal language. Before speech, there is gesture, and if you look closely, our human nature is rooted in gesture and body language. Words can fail; the body never lies.”

What was your impression of Paul Taylor’s work the first time you saw it? What made you want to perform his work?

“The funny thing is I fell in love with Paul Taylor’s movement style before I ever saw the company. There are many choreographers and many companies whose work I adore, but for various reasons they were not right for my body type.

“When I found Paul Taylor, I knew I was enraptured by the athleticism, the use of gesture, the theatricality, and the interplay of “light” and dark.” It was such a rich and vast world I was hungry to explore.”

What is your favorite piece on the calendar this season and why?

“This season I am beyond thrilled to be dancing the principal role in Mr. Taylor’s 2002 classic, “Promethean Fire” — a work of astounding beauty and power. I have looked up to dancers Patrick Corbin and Michael Trusnovec (who originated the role) for years, and to perform this role is an astoundingly humbling opportunity.”

What new works on the season are you most excited about dancing?

“I am ecstatic to have worked with both Doug Varone and Bryan Arias in their new works for our company. Each of these artists brings such a unique and captivating perspective to dance and dance-making I feel forever changed by creating in the room with them. Honestly. They are both a treasure and wonderful human beings.”

What can a non-dancer learn from watching modern dance?

“I think modern dance asks the viewer to engage in ways that may seem unusual upon first viewing. Audience members often want to know, “what does it mean?” I love telling them, “whatever you want it to mean.” I always say never ask what it means, but ask how it made you feel. What images touched you or repelled you? What dancers did you feel connected to and why? Just because a dance might not express a direct narrative, doesn’t mean it can’t induce incredibly poignant emotions.”

What advice would you have for someone who wants to be more creative in their life?

“Read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I’m not kidding. It’s one of the most profound texts I’ve ever read on what it means to be a human being and how we all have a creative impulse within us.

“But if someone wants to be more creative, I say go out and see the world. Taste foods you have never heard of. Travel to places whose language you don’t speak. Ask an art historian to talk to you about art that doesn’t appeal to you. Try something new as often as you can. Even if it means sitting back and watching people pass by. Take the time to fully observe your world and you’ll see inspiration everywhere.”

Why is great modern dance important to have in our community?

“Modern dance is important to the IVY community because it will expose you to art that will make you think. Some of you may be left breathless; others will be left confused. Some may be left emotional and raw; others will be left hardened. Whatever your experience, watching modern dance is yours to experience. You get what you want to get. And the beauty of modern dance, especially the dances that remain iconic, is that as you grow and evolve as a human being, your relationship with those dances does as well.”

If you aren’t able to join IVY on March 23, or want to go on your own, please be sure to check out Paul Taylor’s entire season here. Use the code NEXT25 for 25% off all performances! And if you need help choosing a show, consider coming to TaylorNEXT Nights.