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Godless in Illinoise

I went to see “Illinoise” on its last day at the Park Avenue Armory. The Justin Peck production was already set to move to Broadway, and Sufjan Stevens fans were already ecstatic: the singer-songwriter’s deeply felt, ingeniously conceived 2005 album Illinois is not only the impetus and origin of the Peck dancical but also its libretto and score, with a group of wondrous winged singers and multi-instrumental musicians scaffolded above the stage performing the album in its overwhelming entirety, though re-arranged a bit and shuffled. The critics had also already weighed in; they divided sharply between those, usually from the theater world, who deemed the 90-minute show sweet and novel for being as wordless as “Movin’ Out” and those, from the dance end, who found it cloying and sentimental.

But no one mentioned God.  

Performance

“IlIinoise” by Justin Peck

Place

Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY, March 26, 2024

Words

Apollinaire Scherr

“Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

In Stevens’ Illinois as much as in his musical universe, God is the mind of all things, including us: “You came to take us/ All things go, all things go/To re-create us/All things grow, all things grow/We had our mind set/All things know, all things know.” God is not the mind of all things all the time, though. Sometimes things mean nothing and know nothing, and this is in itself a wonder to Sufjan, who transmits that wonder to us. Along with “the glory when you ran outside/with your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied,” there are such incidental facts as a red hat and Frank Lloyd Wright and cream of wheat. Phenomena, experience, and received wisdom may float on a tide of meaninglessness, but at some point they anchor. Going, growing, and knowing take place. The tucked-in shirt, the bible study on Tuesday night, the navy yard where the father drove are not symbols. They are what they are, as YHWH once said of Himself. For Stevens, this immanence, however fleeting, compensates for the Lord’s propensity to “take and take and take.” As for a song’s immanence, it consists in the music more even than in the words. Illinois’s constant shifts in genre bring this out. We don’t take for granted the banjo-picking any more than we do the golden rod: both are beautiful (all things grow) and neither will last (all things go). Even for us disbelievers, there is no Illinois without a giver and taker in the sky. 

And yet there is“Illinoise.” The dance drama centers around a campfire, where a group of Gen-Zers exchange stories—of anxiety and fear mainly, whether political (Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan returned from the dead) or demographic (serial killer on the loose in your state) or personal (I need to be Superman—or have him). The danced stories in the 90-minute show’s first act are the perfect size and heft for the circumstances: friends gathering to make stuff up together, journals in hand. Zachary Gonder as Man of Rubber, not Steel, bobs and skims above the stage like a sailor on shore leave yet to find his land legs. As the “Black man running [toward] a better life” (“Jacksonville”), Byron Tittle, of Dorrance Dance renown, breaks out in the kind of virtuosic tap solo you rarely get on Broadway. The scene of serial killer Wayne Gacy, Jr. dressed as a clown and “popping” his victims like so many balloons (they deflate to the floor) is just the right amount of silly: how do you represent violence that doesn’t even purport to have a purpose? And Jeanette Delgado as the nightmare seer moves big to outpace zealous Republican zombies. 

Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in “Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Delgado’s capaciousness is rare on the tiny Armory stage, utterly dwarfed by the seating for one thousand, which radiates out and up. But the space fits the idiom Peck has devised for the show—more hip-hop, more angular and contained, than he does for New York City Ballet. He captures the way young people hold themselves in and back. They aren’t sure which way to go, which way they can go, and yet they press against edges they want to transgress. Their yearning is palpable.  

I found the first act all of a piece. The music and dance shared scale and intensity. But it’s the second act where the story ramps up. A main character emerges, reticent Henry (menschlich Ricky Ubeda). He goes on a trip with his best friend, the inchoate, floppy-haired Carl (Ben Cook), whom he secretly loves. But Carl has a girlfriend—who dies. Cancer of the bone. After some deliberation, Carl kills himself. Henry must carry on, must return to this circle of friends who are listening to him but who cannot contain the loss, the betrayal, no matter how solicitous they are. 

While the songs, which Timo Andres has arranged with great sensitivity to their dramatic exigency, expand to envelope us in sadness, the dance story puddles. The telling is too small to convey unrequited love that ends in the unrequiting lover throwing you over for another, then killing himself: a double betrayal. Peck has been conscientious about meeting the requirements of commercial theatre. Why else enlist a playwright, the Pulitzer-winning Jackie Sibblies Drury, for guidance?  And musical theater does tend to operate on a human scale, with representing, not conjuring or evoking, its standard MO. But given the choreographer has already taken risks—with lyrics doing the work of script—why not go all the way, or at least where dance beckons? 

Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, Kara Chan, and Ricky Ubeda in “Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Every time an ensemble appears as a mass in a dance, every time dance acts as a force, every time an atmosphere emerges onstage, we have met the sublime. Consider the dancers cresting like waves in Balanchine’s “Serenade;” time thickening in his “Emeralds”; the wending procession of figures in Petipa’s “Kingdom of the Shades”; Ivanov’s serpentine configurations of swans for “Swan Lake”Mark Morris’s ecstatic unending snow in the “Hard Nut”; the spells of stillness in almost any Merce Cunningham piece. And on and on. Whenever the dancer becomes part of a larger design, the dance approaches the godly.

It almost happened in the Henry story. Carl (Cook) teetered on a ledge. Hooded figures in black walked this narrow path atop a wall before unceremoniously dropping off, out of sight. Because the intervals were irregular, I kept thinking maybe they wouldn’t jump and was shook every time they did. Then Carl turned his back on us, towards the abyss. He paused for several long beats. When he too jumped, I realized I had been hoping he would jump up—disappear into a blast of white light. I wanted the magic of theatre to intervene for once in God’s miserable plan.  

Ben Cook and Ricky Ubeda in “Illinoise” at Park Avenue Armory. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Even before the Henry story, there were episodes that needed a wider aperture—for example, that nightmare in which Delgado is running from the reactionary zombies. In nightmares, as in a nightmarish political reality, evil individuals aren’t nearly as scary as the climate they stir up. Dance can do the stickiness of bad dreams. The dancers might have become the climate, not just characters in Halloween drag. 

But to the heart of the story again—according to Stevens’ song “Chicago,” this man whom the show calls Henry knows he’s in trouble: “I fell in love—again,” he begins. “All things go, all things go.” It’s like the women at the start of “Serenade” turning their face away from the midnight sun. We know someone will get scorched. Peck has yet to offer us such a forewarning. He shows the men’s reticence as they kiss, but no frame of forsakenness. And yet there is a dance equivalent to Stevens setting “goldenrod” and “untied shoes” a few minutes from “all things grow,” thereby suggesting how little or much a thing can mean, how invested with grace it may be, for a while. Dancers always everywhere move back and forth between subject and object, between character and something less bounded. They are almost always taken over, at some point, by a mind beyond themselves (choreography, music, quiet). This happens in Justin Peck’s ballets and, with a bit of reframing for crucial scenes, it could happen in “Illinoise.” 

Apollinaire Scherr


Apollinaire Scherr has written regularly for the Financial Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Newsday, and contributed to Salon, New York magazine, the Village Voice, Elle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Barnard magazine, and Flash Art International.

comments

apollinaire

Thank you, Rachel. I see things that need tweaking. (I wrote it too fast, for me.) But thank you.

Rachel Howard

What a deeply considered, sensitive, and evocative review. Thank you.

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