Boost Broadway, by any physical means necessary

Boost Broadway, by any physical means necessary

That leaves “Illinois”, a difficult candidate to classify. On one level, it’s a musical rendition of Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album. But it’s also a dance show, choreographed and directed by Justin Peck, which mime the songs and incorporate them into a story. Like the other nominees (except “Here Lies Love”), it’s a coming-of-age story. The conceit is that a group of vulnerable young men gather by a campfire to read entries from their diaries aloud – telling stories expressed through dance.

Having dancers carry the narrative while musicians and singers accompany them is fairly common in ballet and concerts, but has not been attempted much on Broadway, a notable exception being Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.” This means that “Illinois” is the most ambitious candidate in terms of choreography, and the one that asks dance to do the most.

The show created a strange divide in critical reception. Theater critics generally found “Illinois” innovative and influential. Dance critics considered it disappointingly sentimental and tiring.

How can this division be calculated? It can be a matter of sensitivity, although theater critics tend to be wary of sentimentality in other theatrical forms. It’s definitely about familiarity. Peck, who won a Tony Award for choreographing the 2018 revival of “Carousel,” is New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer. He’s been making dances around late adolescence, often set to Stevens’ music, for a long time. To many dance critics, including Beck fans like myself, he has lately seemed stuck in a kind of arrested development.

From this perspective, the choreography in “Illinois” is off. Although arranged with gentle skill and care, the underlying idiom is restrained, alternating frantically between grasping and communicating. The dancers appear to be trying to escape constraints and failure. This may express an aspect of adolescence, but it holds these talented dancers back a lot, limiting their emotional range. Worse still, Beck makes them all dance the same way, as if they were trapped inside Beck’s avatars. When they explode, casually (Byron Teitel’s solo flick) or in a breakdown (Ricky Ubeda’s solo about angry grief), it’s a flash of wasted potential.

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A shared language creates a community, but one that seems contrived from the beginning (where, outside of therapy, do young people sit around reading to each other from their magazines?), achieved mainly through forced cheering and hugging. The great emotions the show can evoke come from the music, despite the limitations of the choreography.

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