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In “Illinoise” by Justin Peck, dance and feel it

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Justin Peck was about 17 when he first heard Sufjan Stevens’ album “Illinois,” an epic anthem to the state, nearly two dozen tracks brimming with orchestral indie rock, dense, lyrical nostalgia and a sometimes obscure local history. This listening experience happened long before Peck wanted to do dance, before he was even a professional dancer.

But “Illinois” pushed him to move. “It was such an instant, illuminating thing that I felt like it was so danceable,” said Peck, now the resident choreographer and artistic advisor to New York City Ballet. “And it’s so rare to find someone who can speak to that, especially someone who’s alive right now.”

Since then, Peck, 36, has found artistic inspiration in Stevens — “the voice of music that has led me down paths further than ever before,” he said.

Both collaborated regularlynotably on “The Year of the Rabbit”, the ballet which launched Peck as a choreographer, in 2012. Shortly after they began working together, Peck, hoping to experiment with forms of storytelling and influenced by dance-pop productions like Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” asked if he could create a piece of theater on “Illinois”. » It took Stevens almost five years to accept.

Nearly five years later, the result is “Illinoise” a project every bit as ambitious and genre-defying as its soundtrack: a narrative musical that combines a coming-of-age story, a snapshot of queer identity, and a meditation on death, love, community , history, politics and zombies.

Growing up, Peck says, the arts, especially theater, gave him a sense of belonging. He presented “Illinoise” through a protagonist who searches for the big city, “finding his tribe, his voice and his sexuality – all those things that many of us go through, especially those of us who have moved to a place like New York.” York from smaller or more conservative areas.

The choreography mixes playful punk energy and tap dancing, funky solos and fiery pas de deux, with a cast whose members include ballet dancers and former “So You Think You Can Dance” contestants. After selling out, the performances were enthusiastically received at the College of Bards and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, “Illinoise” runs March 2-26 in The Park Avenue Armorywith a view to expanding to larger stages, such as Broadway.

“This seems like the most attractive thing I’ve ever worked on,” said Jackie Sibblies Drury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who is committed to helping shape the story, who has no dialogue. “But the whole process felt so intimate and personal.”

And this despite a cast of 16 people and an orchestra of 14 people, with three singer-musicians who bring their own non-Sufjan sounds, including Shara Novaalso known as My brightest diamondwhich was part of the original recording of “Illinois”.

“Illinois” was Stevens’ breakthrough album, and since its release in 2005, it has fascinated fans like Drury, who associates it with a move to Chicago in her early 20s, at a time when she wondered if her then boyfriend could be her husband (he is). “It’s like the album wants you to live your life,” she said.

It’s also repeated in dance studios — not just at Peck’s — especially during improvisations, said Ricky Ubeda, a performer in the show. “It’s so dynamic,” he said, “and his voice is so felt that it’s easy to let that move through the body.”

Ubeda, who won “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2014, plays Henry, the central character in “Illinoise.” He leaves the house and finds a team of young friends around a campfire with lanterns, like a minimalist Wes Anderson scene. They share stories – the dances – from their journals. Henry is reluctant to open up at first, although he happily scribbles in his book as the singers sing, “Do you write from the heart?”

It’s a lyric from the jubilant song “Come on! Feel the Illinois! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg visits me in a dream)”, which plays in an ensemble sequence whose choreography bursts with Jerome Robbins-like joy.

The show begins with Henry on a blanket, spooning with his partner, Douglas (Ahmad Simmons). The two performers worked on the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” which earned Peck a Tony Award for choreography. He contacted them when “Illinoise” was in its infancy. “He took us for a walk and explained his vision for his work,” Ubeda said. “He didn’t really have the answers to what this was going to become. It was like, how do I tell the story so that it can be felt and seen, without words?

Dressed in a baseball cap, shorts and backpack, with a movement style that is both lithe and emotionally flexible, Ubeda, 28, has a Stevens vibe – although Henry was not not intended to be a replacement for Sufjan, said Peck, for whom the project was not biographical, but personal. “There are a lot of parallels to the things I experienced and the people I lost, as a young person in the world,” he said.

For Ubeda too: “As a queer person, I’ve been in Henry’s shoes, falling in love with someone who loves you, but doesn’t love you that way” – an adolescent rite of passage , did he declare.

Stevens, 48, did not actively participate in the production. He announced last fall that he suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that left him unable to walk; he was undergoing treatment and is expected to recover, he said in a statement. An intensely private artist, he also shared on social media last spring about the death of his partner, Evans Richardson, museum administrator – publicly addressing his sexuality for the first time in the process. Although Stevens had discussions with the “Illinoise” team about music, Richardson’s death derailed his participation, company members said. (Through a representative, Stevens declined an interview request.)

The composer and musician Timo Andrés — also a former Stevens collaborator — created the arrangements, which include interludes from the album that were not performed live, Andres said.

For the stage version, he tried to retain the DIY spirit of the recording, made with many of Stevens’ friends, often in ad hoc studios around New York. It’s “quite orchestral, but also quite intimate and quite simple,” Andres said.

The music is also very rich, he says, as if it wanted to extend beyond its auditory container: “It’s like hearing the New York Philharmonic in a high school gymnasium or something like that. It’s bursting at the seams. »

Even in a production of this scale, he couldn’t match some of the album’s sounds (“We’re not going to hire four oboes just for a moment”), so he relied on the musicians performing on stage to convey the complexity with multiple instruments.

Nova plays electric guitar and sings, along with Elijah Lyons and Tasha Viets-VanLear. The singers wear translucent, multi-colored butterfly wings, in homage to the costumes from the “Illinois” tour. (A creative mathematician, Stevens sewed these wings himself, from kites, Nova said.)

In a way, Nova is the institutional memory of “Illinois.” But by dissociating this performance from his experience creating songs like piercing “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” with Stevens — “I remember crying during that recording session with him,” she said — was intense, especially as she worries about her friend after his traumatic year.

What helped was the connection with the dancers – the singers often locked eyes with them, which she called “exciting” – and the realization that the music could last, except for Stevens.

“I mean, you can’t even look at the audience because from what we can see, people are crying,” Nova said. “That’s why we all come to the theater, it’s just to have a space to feel feelings that we don’t see or can’t express in the world.”

For Peck, translating the details of this beloved but complicated album into dance and story led him to question how literal certain moments should be made. The creators made a readability error: during “Casimir Pulaski Day” which refers to “bone cancer”, the dancer Gaby Diaz appears with an IV bag and his partner (Ben Cook) tears his chest.

“This show scares me a little because it explores darker themes and experiences,” Peck said, noting that his choreography often hums with exhilaration. (“It’s quite boring, actually – even though I try not to put it in, instinctively it filters through.”)

But in one of his final conversations with Stevens about the project, the musician reminded him to peel back the layers of the album — “this bright, happy thing” — and delve into its depths.

Jessica Dessner, a artist, writer and former dancer — and sister to Stevens’ buddies Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National — introduced Stevens to Peck (at Peck’s request) more than a decade ago. She said that for Stevens, dance became a natural extension of her multi-layered work, which includes illustration and film. “He really saw it as another emanation of this universe that he creates with all his projects,” she said.

Entering the production as a non-dancer, Drury found herself relating to its emotional rhythms, like a moment when Henry and Douglas, as a loving couple, break up a cacophony and do a simple box step slide, each other holding hands and breathing. , deeply, together, eyes closed. “Every time I see it, it makes me cry,” she said.

Given his stature in the dance world, Peck naturally attracts high-profile collaborators and performers. Execution mattered, but empathy was paramount. The hope, he says, is that the show “helps people understand the world a little more, or understand themselves, their relationships or the idea of ​​loss, exactly what theater has done to me, especially as a young, lonely child.”

The intention resonated even in the company members’ cheers during rehearsal: “Feel it! » they cried.



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