With “Illinoise”, Justin Peck Has Expanded The Idea Of What A Broadway Musical Can Be

Justin Peck is spending the spring zigzagging between Times Square and the Upper West Side. The star choreographer of New York City Ballet has been biking between the spring season rehearsals at the Lincoln Center and the St James Theater on 44th Street where Illinoise – a modern dance show which he choreographed to Sufjan Stevens’s 2005-dated album Illinois – has moved after a three-week run at the Park Avenue Armory. The liminal time on his bicycle is what Peck calls “one of the few Zen moments of the day”, where his foremost rule is to avoid any distraction and just pedal. “I don’t even listen to music, because even then I am doing something.”

Peck has been on the go for almost two decades now. In 2014, he was appointed the second resident choreographer in the history of NYCB and has over the years brought in a contemporary spin on the institution’s classical frame of ballet through original, upbeat – and occasionally sneaker-clad – shows and collaborations with established artists and fashion designers for set design and costumes, such as Jeffrey Gibson (who represents the US in this year’s Venice Biennale), Humberto Leon, Sterling Ruby, and Marcel Dzama. Peck has also helmed the choreography for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and won a Tony award for best choreography for his work in the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Illinoise, however, may be his biggest career move so far. The 37-year old’s directorial debut is the result of a three-force collaboration: the dance is envisioned by Peck himself to Stevens’s introspective coming-of-age album with a narrative written by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. A group of singers perform the album’s songs while dancers express Sibblies Drury’s storyline without uttering any lines. Gestures substitute for words and lyrics prompt the moves. The loosely fictionalized story meanders through evergreen emotions, such as the heartbreak after first love, turning to friendships for solidarity, and the eventual resurgence from loss.

Illinoise had its US premiere in Chicago in January and had a full house run at the Armory, but, for Peck, the production’s swift transfer to Broadway truly crescendoes the group effort which includes 18 dancers and the pianist Timo Andres with a live band. He is proud to provide a blueprint for an expanded definition of a Broadway show: “Bringing a work from an art space to Times Square enriches the range of what can be presented to a large audience and be sustained in this realm.” Peck’s effort to push the borders of ballet has been similar. After joining NYCB in 2006 at age 18, he was given a solo number in 2013 which led to interpretations of the American ballet masters Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine who Peck considers the “Mozart of American ballet”. When he became the company’s resident choreographer in 2014, the film-maker Jody Lee Lipes’s made the documentary, Ballet 422, about Peck’s preparation for his original piece titled Paz de la Jolla. In 2017, he cast two male dancers to a romantic dance number in his original production, titled The Times Are Racing.

In Illionoise, he again veers away from traditional outlines of modern dance. “A silent film of dance underscored by an album,” he describes the structure which places the performers around a campfire as they dance their stories of growing up through disappointment and revelation. They wear everyday, slightly hippie early aughts, attires while swaying through their life’s ups and downs. Peck’s open-ended compositions, however, leave room for imagination. “The audience is invited to meet the characters at a point and fill in the narrative,” he says. The format is somewhat of a reaction to what he explains as “a lot of work that spoon-feeds all the intentions nowadays”. Peck instead believes in “trusting the viewers to leave space for their interpretation”.

The birth of what is now a major Broadway show is in fact a result of Peck’s own imagination as a teenager. He had first listened to Stevens’s album during his early days in New York City as a 17-year-old from “a sleepy surfer town” in southern California. The move which he remembers as “a transcendental experience and a search for my own community”, was then soundtracked by the album’s moody and honest lyrics about small town angst and curiosity for more. An instrumental aspect for Peck then and still today is the way Stevens traverses between folk, opera, indie rock and pop. “The overall storytelling and the poetry helped me discover who I was in the city and where I stood in the world,” he says. After a few attempts to reach out to Stevens early on, Peck eventually connected with him, which has grown into a friendship and collaborations that include a dance composition to the musician’s other album, Enjoy Your Rabbit. NYCB will in fact re-stage the production, titled Year of the Rabbit, in May as part of the organization’s 75th anniversary programming.

Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Peck says that a key decision among the production’s three masterminds was to find “a dance language that would not be alienating”. Although the dancers deliver highly gestural and even occasionally erratic numbers, Peck wanted to convey for the viewers what he calls “a fine line between watching something extraordinary and feel like they could almost do the same dance”. This sense of familiarity is also supported by the characters’ relatable emotional struggles and the album’s wide recognition among millennials and even gen Z. The two-time run of the track list’s most recognized song, Chicago, throughout the show draws a full circle in the depiction of the hero’s journey. “I wanted to reference musical theater where certain songs repeat to underline the character’s transformation from the beginning,” Peck explains.

Peck retired from the stage in 2019, but he admits that the right project might pull him back up: “It would be fun to get out there for Illinoise, but the cast has it down better than I ever could.” Although he feels “happier behind the scenes for now”, his life and journey on to the ballet stage is already seeped into every second of the show.

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