Enhancing Broadway, by Any Bodily Means Necessary

That leaves “Illinoise,” the nominee that’s hardest to classify. On one level, it’s a concert rendition of Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 album. But it’s also a dance show, choreographed and directed by Justin Peck, that acts out the songs mutely and braids them into a narrative. Like the other nominees (except for “Here Lies Love”) it’s a coming-of-age story. The conceit is that a group of fragile young people gather by a campfire to read aloud entries from their journals — telling stories expressed through dance.

For dancers to carry the narrative while musicians and singers accompany them is fairly common in ballet and concert dance, but it hasn’t been tried much on Broadway, a notable exception being Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.” This means that “Illinoise” is by far the most choreographically ambitious nominee, the one that asks dance to do the most.

The show has occasioned a curious split in critical reception. Theater critics generally found “Illinoise” innovative and affecting. Dance critics judged it sentimental and disappointingly tired.

How to account for this split? It could be a question of sensibility, though theater critics tend to be wary of sentimentality in other theatrical forms. It is certainly about familiarity. Peck, who won a Tony for his choreography for the 2018 revival of “Carousel,” is the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet. He has been making dances about late adolescence, often set to music by Stevens, for a long time. To many dance critics, including Peck fans like me, he has lately seemed to be stuck in a kind of arrested development.

From that perspective, the choreography in “Illinoise” is stunted. Although arranged with skill and tender care, the basic idiom is constricted, frantically alternating between holding in and reaching out. The dancers look like they’re trying to escape from straitjackets and failing. This might express an aspect of adolescence, but it hobbles these talented dancers too much, limiting their emotional range. Worse, Peck makes them all dance the same, as if trapped inside Peck avatars. When they break out, tangentially (Byron Tittle’s tap solo) or or in a breakdown (Ricky Ubeda’s solo of angry grief), it’s a flash of missed potential.

The common language establishes a community but it’s a community that seems contrived from the start (where, outside of therapy, do young people sit around reading to one another from their journals?), achieved mainly through forced cheer and hugs. The big feelings that the show can invoke come from the music, despite the choreography’s limitations.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *