Justin Peck’s ‘Illinoise’: A goodie bag of feelings

'Illinoise' at Park Avenue Armory, 2024. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
'Illinoise' at Park Avenue Armory, 2024. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

When you travel to Illinoise, you don’t know what you’re going to get – but you can rest assured you’ll leave with a goodie bag of feelings. The production, choreographed and directed by Justin Peck and written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, is an anomaly of form: there’s music (the album Illinois by Sufjan Stevens from 2005), there’s a loose story, and there’s dance, but it’s not just a dance show, it’s not really a musical, it’s certainly not a play: dance-theater could describe it, if you cared to put it in a box, which I do not. Over 90 uninterrupted minutes, the audience is treated to whirlwind of emotion, musical prowess and impeccable dancing from some of the best performers out there.

The show opened at Park Avenue Armory in March in New York City after stints in Chicago and at Bard College. The show’s entire month run has sold out, a testament to its young reputation thus far. The story is one of youth, love, loss, identity and hope – as all good stories are. The program sheds some light on the details with its handwritten, journal-entry style explanation. In the case one might be running too late to have the time to read through it before the start of the show (read: me), it’s still possible to understand the framework of the tale from the music and the dancing in another testament to the thoughtful direction. As such, the viewer can feel the story rather than knowing the story.

What begins as a group of young friends sharing stories of identity, curiosity and innocence over a campfire progresses toward the often murky nuances of growing into young adulthood. Visions of expectations begin to fade and shred as the realities of life reveal themselves. What remains intact, however, is the humanity between people. The gut-wrenchingly relatable challenges the characters face creep from the stage to the audience. We can feel their sorrow, their joy and the unpredictable way we humans toggle between the two on a daily basis. The amalgamation of music, dance, direction and writing pave the way.

It’s deeply worth noting that the quality, skill and experience of the creatives give this performance the impact it has. There’s a certain serenity one can feel from the audience knowing the performers onstage have every tool in the book to open the portal of vulnerability and keep it open for 90 minutes. In many ways, it felt like a dream ballet of nostalgia for a simpler time, perhaps a time before our digital lives began (there was a phonebook as a prop), perhaps a time when the paddles of life had yet to churn up the silt of river bottom. Illinoise is the boat that carries us through these twists and turns and lets us feel that the ironic darkness of hope cannot exist without levity of light.

In short, don’t forget your tissues. You will need them.

By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa.

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