‘Illinoise’: A Place of Overflowing Emotion, but Little Dance Spirit

“They trust themselves more than actors do,” Jerome Robbins once wrote of dancers. “Dancers know they will make it their own. Actors have the complication of wanting to make it their own, and their horror of exposing what their own is. Dancers always reveal themselves.”

But the dancers in “Illinoise,” Justin Peck’s reimagining of Sufjan Stevens’s adventurous concept album “Illinois” (2005), are in a knotty situation. In the show, now at the Park Avenue Armory, the dancers are also the actors. And rarely does it feel like they are revealing facets of themselves — or showing the clarity that radiates through unaffected dancing.

Instead their performances are a bizarre hybrid. They act out the dancing and dance out the acting. They struggle with both, partly because of their daunting task: Turning their very adult selves into younger selves on the cusp of adulthood. Even the dewier-looking ones have trouble. How could they not? Peck has them bouncing between giddiness and angst, with little in between.

It’s hard to pin down what “Illinoise” wants to be, though it clearly has Broadway ambitions. Is it the musical theater version of a story ballet? A concert with dancing? Does it even care about dancing, really? The show, referred to as “A New Kind of Musical,” has little that seems new; it’s drowning in sentimentality, which is about as old school as it gets. And it doesn’t have much of a story, but what is there — by Peck and the playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury — is opaque. There’s no dialogue. It’s the music that is the undisputed star here.

With new arrangements by the composer Timo Andres, and featuring three fine vocalists, the music carries the production, often leaving the dancers with little to do but mirror the lyrics. It’s exhausting to watch them sweat through this choreography. “Illinoise” is another attempt by Peck to build a community through dancing bodies, but the community is too delicate, too self absorbed for real connection.

Ricky Ubeda, top, and Ahmad Simmons.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Related Articles

Back to top button